The death of a loved one prompts a quiet time of mourning for most Americans, but for most Hispanics, the annual celebration of Dia de los Muertos is a lively, colorful subversion of that expectation.
Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is a traditional and indigenous celebration that honors and welcomes those that have died back the physical world.
This celebration takes place Nov. 1 and Nov. 2 by building ofrendas, oraltars, presented with gifts and sentimental objects. The first day of November is known as All Saints’ Day, where the souls of deceased children can join their families. On the second day, the spirits of adults rejoin their families for 24 hours.
The tradition of ofrendas originated in Mexico as a synthesis of Spanish Catholicism and indigenous Aztec beliefs. The Aztecs celebrated Mictēcacihuātl, the goddess of death who collected the bones of the deceased to resurrect them at the end of July. From Oct. 31 to Nov. 2, the Spanish celebrated Allhallowtide, the three-day observance when children and adults rejoined their families. These two days fused into the celebration that is now Día de los Muertos.
An altar traditionally consists of seven tiers that symbolize the route to heaven with objects that display the four elements: earth, wind, fire and water. Other items included are photographs of those that have died, their favorite foods, drinks and anything else that commemorates their life. Dead bread, spirit animalsand sugar skulls can also be used to decorate the altar.
Ofrendas should be built before Oct. 31 and left until at least Nov. 3. Here’s a guide of essentials to purchase before the end of the month in preparation for an ofrenda.
The four elements
Cempasuchil, or marigold, is a flower whose bright colors and strong scent are believed to guide the spirits back to the physical world. These flowers represent the element of earth and families typically place them in bunches on altars and gravesites. Papel picado, or perforated paper, embodies the essence of wind in which intricate designs and shapes are cut from paper and hung above the altar. Candles or incense represent fire and help guide spirits back to the physical world. A glass of water represents the final element, which helps quench the spirits’ thirst after their long journey to rejoin their families and friends.
Skulls and sugar skulls are painted with bright colors and smiles to represent the enjoyment and fulfillment of the afterlife. Pan de Muerto is a traditional Mexican sweet bread placed on the altar to feed the spirits of those who have died. Typically, those who bake the bread adorn the tops with crosses or bone-like sticks from the same flour for decoration.
Alebrijes are sculptures of mythical creatures that act as guides to direct the spirits to their destinations in the afterlife. Alebrijes are colorful and made from a combination of different animals or angels.