Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead) is one of the most vibrant and well known traditions in Mexico. And the altar itself—the ofrenda—is one of the holiday’s main focal points. Ofrendas are a place of gathering, joyously honoring deceased friends or relatives. Not only do ofrendas unite the living and the dead, they’re also a space to share stories. Each family member contributes by talking about their history and connection.
You can build ofrendas anywhere in your home. And you’re not limited to people you knew personally. It’s not uncommon to see ofrendas honoring deceased celebrities. Just remember that your ofrenda should be ready by midnight on October 31, in preparation for All Saints’ Day (November 1) and All Souls’ Day (November 2).
Cempazúchitl, the Náhuatl word for Mexican marigold flowers, are easily recognizable because of their golden yellow or copper-brown color (which represents the sun), and their strong fragrance (which attracts the souls of the dead). When you’re ready, you’ll scatter petals to form a trail from the front door to the ofrenda, as if lighting the way.
These are thin sheets of colorful paper with
elaborate cut-out designs (animals, skeletons) used to decorate the ofrenda. The color yellow represents life, purple stands in for death, and orange serves as the union between life and death. You’ll know a deceased soul has arrived when papel picado flutters.
Calaveras (skulls) are a traditional offering to the god of the
underworld, Mictlantecuhtli, to assure safe passage for the
deceased. Whether painted on faces or made of sugar or
clay, skulls are a ubiquitous Day of the Dead motif, and indispensable elements of an ofrenda representing both death and the sweetness of life. Sugar skulls often include the name of the deceased on the forehead.
No ofrenda is complete without at least one personal item
representing the deceased. Photographs, an article of clothing or jewelry—anything to make the dearly departed feel at home and comfortable. Be creative and have fun, we love this tradition as it creates the space to celebrate life and those that are no longer with us. Make it yours!
PAN DE MUERTO
Pan de Muerto (Bread of the Dead), a sweet bread resembling a pile of bones in the shape of a cross, usually has a spot at the top of the ofrenda signaling the generosity of the host. The bread it meant to nourish the dead after a long, weary journey. Topped with sugar, sesame seeds or butter, pan de muerto come with a variety of fillings, including cajeta (caramel usually made of sweetened goat’s milk), chocolate, and nata (cream). Here’s a link to one of our favorite pan de muerto recipes.
CANDLES & INCENSE
The flames of white candles represent hope and faith, and
light the way for the dead. You can place them throughout
your ofrenda, or place them in the shape of a cross to signify
north, south, east, and west, which helps the souls orient
themselves and find their way to your ofrenda. Copal incense is burned as an offering, with the rising smoke taking the prayers to the gods, and to cleanse the air in your home, allowing the spirits to enter without difficulty.