Festivals and Events, Food and Drink

Bread and Other Offerings on Day of the Dead

Ofrendas for Day of the Dead

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.

Traditionally, altars will be composed with three layers: the uppermost layer will contain photographs of the remembered deceased and religious symbols, the second layer will contain the all-important ofrendas, and the third layer features supporting pieces such as lit candles, and some may also contain a small towel and washbasin: according to folklore, these provide a means of refreshment to the spirits of the deceased upon their arrival at the altar.

Ofrendas traditionally placed on altars

The second layer 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 enjoyed during their lifetime.  These items, or a symbol of them, will appear on the second tier of each altar.

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.

Every altar will include Mexican orange marigold flowers called cempaxochitl—colloquially referred to as flor de muerto—as well as Pan de Muerto, bread of the dead.

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 things traditionally needed to fully dress a family ofrenda.

The altar tables are usually draped and adorned with colorful tissue paper, 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 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 create their own unique and very personal ofrenda: a symbol of remembrance and a celebration of lives lived.

The composed 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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2 Comments

  1. Teresa Aguila-Moncada says

    thank you so much for your newsletter, I is an honor to me to read your articles. I hope you all have a great Dia de Muertos y sus fiestas y actividades sean siempre para recordar a los que no tenemos la fortuna de vivir en nuestros paise de origen por lo menos disfrutar por este medio con fotografias y articules especiales como los que ustedes nos hacen el favor de mandarnos.
    Muchas gracias!!

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