El Dia del Los Muertos is a special holiday for a lot of people in the Latinx community—Mexican and Central Americans especially. The multi-day holiday which is celebrated over three days in Mexico (and other Latin American countries) takes place on October 31 (All Hallows Eve), November 1 (All Saints Day), and November 2 (All Souls Day). Altars are made by children on the 31st to invite the spirits of dead children (angelitos) to come back to visit their families on earth. The adult spirits visit on the All Souls Day and on the last day families attend cemeteries to decorate the graves and tombs of their ancestors.
A major part of the Dia de los Muertos celebration, which originated in ancient Mesoamerica, is the altar, or ofrenda (offering). It usually contains three levels—for Heaven, Earth, and the underworld and represents the four elements earth, wind, fire, and water. These several elements welcome, celebrate, and pay homage to the dead. Learn about 13 items you will see in practically every Dia de los Muertos altar.
The Dia de los Muertos altars wouldn’t be the same without photos of loved ones who have crossed over to the other side. Some altars have a few pictures, while others feature generations of family members, pets, and celebrities.
Crosses, La Virgen, and Photos of Saints
When the Spanish colonized Mexico, they added their Catholic influence to the originally Aztec Dia de los Muertos. Because of this, most ofrendas feature a cross, La Virgen de Guadalupe, and may include photos of preferred saints. The crosses are usually white, and made from ashes and/or salt, or of candles. The cross represents the four cardinal directions, a guide for spirits.
A Dia de los Muertos altar usually includes an arch, made of sugar cane stalks (but it can be made with other materials, such as flowers). The arch itself represents the passage between life and death.
Flowers are a major part of Dia de los Muertos celebrations. As part of the ofrenda, cempasuchitl/marigold flowers are used a lot. Also known as “flowers of the dead,” it is believed that the vibrant orange color and fragrance of these blooms will lead the spirits home to their altar.
Calaveras are probably the most recognized of all the Day of the Dead symbols. You will see skulls of all kinds (including sugar skulls and those made from clay) decorating an ofrenda, reminding everyone of life and death. Smaller sugar skulls are used to memorialize children who have passed (known as Los Angelitos, they are celebrated on November 1), while larger sugar skulls represent adults (celebrated on November 2).
Favorite Items of Departed Loved Ones
Although most altars or ofrendas for Day of the Dead have a lot of the same elements, it’s the items unique to each person (or people) that make each so special. Ofrendas feature personal belongings of the deceased, as well as food and drinks that they liked to consume.
Fruit Punch or Water and Alcohol
It’s a long journey from one side of life to the other and back. Water, which of course stands for the water element represented in the altars, as well as fruit punch, is provided for tired spirits who need to replenish. Fruit punch is also offered or alcohol for a stronger way to unwind.
Pan de Muerto
Pan de muerto is an essential element to any Dia de lof Muertos ofrenda. Each part of the bread symbolizes something. The circular shape represents the cycle of life and death; the center bump represents the cranium; and four diagonal incisions stand for tears shed, bones, and the four cardinal points.
Candles are abundant in a Day of the Day altar. They represent the fire element, and are at times, used to make a cross. The candles light the way home for spirits, and represent light, hope, and faith.
Dogs and Monarch Butterflies
You will see dogs and/or monarch butterflies in Dia de los Muertos celebrations. The Xoloitzcuintl, or Mexican hairless dog, is the particular breed that is considered by the Aztec and Maya to be a guide in the afterlife. Butterflies are believed to be spirits of departed loved ones. Monarch butterflies, in particular, migrate to Mexico each year at the time of Dia de los Muertos, so it’s fitting that they appear in the festivities.
Food is such an important part of Latinx life, so it makes sense that it is also a big part of Latinx death. Fruit, nuts, pumpkin seeds, salt, comida tipica (including tamales and hot chocolate), and the favorite food of the departed are laid out for them to feast on. Pan de muerto, and candies for children on the other side are also laid out.
Copal is a tree resin used to make incense. In Dia de los Muertos festivities, it is burned to purify the air and guide spirits home.
Papel picado is part of the technicolor decor that you see during Day of the Dead. In addition to adding bright pops of color and a touch of Mexican culture, the paper symbolizes the wind element.