The first and second days of November mark one of the most important cultural and religious events on Mexico’s annual calendar: Day of the Dead, a festival that emphasizes remembrance of past lives and celebration of the continuity of life. Traditionally, November 1st honors deceased children and November 2nd honors deceased adults.
A centerpiece of the traditions that surround the occasion is the creation and open placement of an ofrenda —an offering— that usually manifests as an altar in family homes, although some ofrendas are also arranged at local cemeteries, and in public spaces including parks and plazas. These altars are an art form and personal expression of love towards one’s family members now passed; they are not intended for worshiping but instead for the purpose of remembrance and celebration of life.
The three tiers of an Ofrenda
Traditionally, altars featuring ofrendas will be composed of three layers:
- the top tier contains photographs of the remembered deceased as well as religious statues or symbols, especially that of La Virgen Guadalupe;
- the second tier will contain the ofrendas: toys are usually offered for deceased children, and bottles of tequila, mezcal, or atole for deceased adults. Personal ornaments, and/or the deceased’s favorite food or confection will also be present here, as will Pan de Muerto;
- the third tier will feature lit candles, and some people add a washbasin and a towel so that the spirits of the deceased may refresh themselves upon arrival at the altar.
The second tier of the altar is the most personal, furnished with a thoughtful selection of ofrendas for the remembered deceased. Special care is given to the composition of this layer by those creating the ofrendas, giving due consideration to the important things their loved ones most enjoyed during the course of their lifetime.
In remembrance of deceased children, toy and game sets, cuddly toys, as well as candy and snacks they enjoyed may be placed here. For adults, it’s traditional to leave samples of the food and drink they especially enjoyed (or the ingredients which make them).
Small clay pots containing samples of foods like corn, spices, chiles, and confectionery are common; as are clay cups or mugs containing the deceased’s favorite beverages—which could include sodas, chocolate, coffee, tea, atole; as well as tequila, pulque, or mezcal, etc.
Making arrangements for the ofrenda
In the two weeks or so leading-up to Day of the Dead, local markets across Mexico begin to fill-up with colorful stalls selling all the items traditionally needed to fully dress a family ofrenda.
The altar tables are usually draped and adorned with colorful paper or cloth, some with cut-outs known as papel picado and formed into a variety of patterns which echo the traditions —Catrinas, skulls, crosses, and flowers are most common— and some even depict pumpkins.
Most altars will include some form of confectionery, typically caramelized pumpkin and an assortment of sugar skulls which are creatively decorated and painted and sold in a range of different sizes.
Candlelight is an important atmospheric aspect of each ofrenda, and the markets are replete with options, often presented in colorful pots and jars, or with edges of the wax candle painted and decorated in harmony with Day of the Dead themes. Incense burners may also be found on some ofrendas, alongside the candles.
If you’re visiting Mexico in the days leading up the event, be sure to visit at least one local market to experience the atmosphere and witness the traditions which accompany the creation of family altars, and where you’ll see local people busily seeking out the indispensable pieces they need to compose their own unique and very personal ofrenda: a symbol of remembrance and a celebration of lives lived.
The ofrendas may be witnessed at local cemeteries, and in public parks and plazas. In some provincial towns and villages, local families traditionally open their homes’ altars on the 1st and 2nd of November; so a visit to a local cemetery and a wander around local neighborhoods may provide you with an opportunity to share and experience Day of the Dead traditions at a very local and personal level.
You can learn more about the traditions of Day of the Dead, including the altars and Catrinas on our article about Celebrating Life on Day of the Dead in Mexico
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