Death is an inevitable part of life. Because of this, every culture around the world has certain unique traditions associated with death.
In Mexico and parts of Central and South America, for example, many celebrateDay of the Dead, orDay of the Dead. In fact, this holiday usually lasts for two days. On November 1st, participants traditionally honor dead children and dedicate adults who passed away on November 2nd.
Go to these sections:
- What is a Day of the Dead Altar?
- What does the Altar of the Day of the Dead represent?
- What are the four elements of an altar?
- Common Day of the Dead Altar Items
- How to Create a Day of the Dead Altar
Despite their theme, Day of the Dead celebrations hardly ever feel somber and dreary. In fact, they are celebratory occasions. People who participate do not mourn the dead, but celebrate their lives.
One way to do this is with a Day of the Dead altar, also known as aTo offer. This guide will explain what one is and the types of items they can decorate.
What is a Day of the Dead Altar?
A Day of the Dead altar is essentially a shrine to a lost loved one. It will usually be colorful and decorative. It may also contain offerings for the dead.
Day of the Dead altars play a very important role in general Day of the Dead celebrations. In preparation for the Day of the Dead, a family may travel to a loved one's grave to clean it up in the days leading up to the celebration. Then they can set up an altar on the tomb itself during Day of the Dead celebrations.
One family often has picnics at a loved one's grave after setting up a Day of the Dead altar. That might sound morbid or dark to some, but it's not. Families often take this opportunity to reflect on the happy and humorous memories of their lost loved ones. The aim is to celebrate the dead instead of just mourning them.
Graves aren't the only places that can serve as locations for Day of the Dead altars. Some families keep Day of the Dead altars in their own homes. It may also be possible to find Day of the Dead altars in certain public places during celebrations.
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What does the Altar of the Day of the Dead represent?
Traditionally, those who celebrate the Day of the Dead believe that during this time of year the souls of lost loved ones return to the world of the living. By doing so, they can hear the prayers of their loved ones.
Many who now celebrate the Day of the Dead may not necessarily believe that departed loved ones actually return to Earth during Day of the Dead celebrations. However, traditional beliefs often still influence how they celebrate the Day of the Dead.
For this reason, many create Day of the Dead altars. A Day of the Dead altar is meant to welcome the souls of the dead. A family creating a Day of the Dead altar wants to remind a loved one that they are not forgotten.
Again, they may also wish to pray for the soul of a lost loved one. Some believe that a deceased person is more likely to hear and grant a prayer if there is an altar for the Day of the Dead. It serves not only to attract your soul to a certain place, but also to show that your loved ones appreciate you. This may prompt them to offer prayers.
What are the four elements of an altar?
The elements of a Day of the Dead altar can vary to some extent from region to region and from family to family. Later, this overview explains some of the common elements and items you might find on a traditional Day of the Dead altar.
However, most Day of the Dead altars feature at least four essential elements. They are:
- Water: On Day of the Dead altars there are often pitchers of water, symbolically quenching the thirst of returning spirits.
- Vento: To symbolize the wind, a Day of the Dead altar can hold items such as paper bands.
- Terra: Earth symbols on a Day of the Dead altar usually take the form of food. Bread is a particularly common symbol for earth on Day of the Dead altars.
- Feuer: Candles are the symbol of fire on virtually all Day of the Dead altars.
You've probably already realized that these are the four elements that many think make up the world around us. Incorporating these elements is a way of relating the Day of the Dead to its roots in Aztec culture and beliefs. The Day of the Dead is a somewhat unique celebration, as various faiths and beliefs have inspired the way people celebrate it.
Common Day of the Dead Altar Items
How a family or individual decorates the Day of the Dead altar can depend to some extent on personal preference. However, there are certain items that people traditionally use to decorate Day of the Dead altars, as these items often have symbolic meanings.
Examples of such items are as follows:
It is important to note that certain details of Day of the Dead traditions may vary depending on which region of Mexico you are in. While many Day of the Dead Altars contain the items on this list, some items may be more common in certain regions.
Regardless of where you are, Day of the Dead shrines often contain decorative skulls orsugar skull. Its designers use materials such as granulated sugar, meringue powder and water when sculpting. Once they're done carving, they traditionally paint in bright colors.
Most Day of the Dead altars contain skulls because people make offerings to the deceased at these shrines. The skulls symbolize the people to whom they bring offerings.
Don't make the mistake of thinking that anything you find on the Day of the Dead altar is inedible! On the contrary, food often plays an important role in Day of the Dead shrines.
Because tradition says that the souls of the dead will return on the Day of the Dead to collect their offerings.
Tradition also states that these souls can be hungry and thirsty.Because of this, many Day of the Dead altars include them.bread of the dead, or Bread of the Dead. The shape of this candy usually resembles a skull and crossbones.Altars may also contain water and salt, as well as certain foods that a dead person enjoyed in life.
You may have noticed that the materials used to create the Day of the Dead skulls are also technically edible. While this is true, most skulls are decorative, although some people also do something special.sugar skullyou should eat.
3. Photos and belongings
Day of the Dead Altars are unique shrines. Certain items, like skulls, are part of this when they are first designed. However, as people add more offerings, they continue to develop and grow.
For example, many people place pictures of deceased loved ones on Day of the Dead shrines. They could also put away possessions that were important to them in life.
This highlights a rather interesting point. Even if you don't celebrate the Day of the Dead, you will find that the way different cultures honor the dead can overlap in many cases.
For example, many people in the United States visit the graves of deceased loved ones to leave photos and belongings. This is clearly very similar to making such offerings on the Day of the Altars of the Dead.
Again, the souls of the deceased traditionally return to Day of the Dead altars. That said, sometimes they need a little help. That's where marigolds come in.
People don't just add marigolds (aka marigolds).Tote Blume, or Flowers of the Dead in Spanish andCempazuchitlin native Nahuatl) to these shrines because they are beautiful. Traditionally, they believe that the unique scent and vibrant color of marigold helps bring the souls of the dead closer to an altar.
In fact, many shrines also have traces of marigold petals leading to them. This symbolizes a path that a soul can take on its way there.
5. Skeleton Figures
In addition to large decorative skulls, Day of the Dead altars often include smaller skeletal figures. It can be toys or dolls. Sometimes they are even edible, which brings more joy to the ancestors of humans.
The inclusion of skull figures on a Day of the Dead altar makes sense for obvious reasons. However, it's important to understand that these characters are different from those you might associate with Halloween or similar celebrations.
These skeletons don't dance around cemeteries like cartoon ghouls. They don't wear Grim Reaper robes. Those who make them don't even try to make them look particularly frightening or threatening, as some would expect based on their experiences with skeleton iconography in other cultures.
Instead, the skeletal figures you find at Day of the Dead altars tend to dress like normal people, ready to engage in normal everyday activities. This includes dancing, making music, or just eating. Some skeleton figures also depict people going through important life moments, such as a wedding.
This, in turn, is directly related to the essence of the Day of the Dead. By showing skeletons dressed and acting like normal people, Day of the Dead altars remind the living that death is and always will be with us.
6. Monarch butterfly
Look closely at a Day of the Dead altar and you might see monarch butterflies. (Of course they will usually be dead).
Monarch butterflies migrate to Mexico every year. Their arrival usually coincides with the 1st of November, the beginning of the Day of the Dead. According to traditional belief, this is because they contain the souls of the dead, returning to their shrines in commemoration.
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Again, if you've ever seen Day of the Dead altars, you know that they look much livelier and more festive than most grave shrines you might find in a typical American cemetery. Often,confettihelps add color to those already colorful scenes.
confettiit is the brightly colored perforated paper that hangs over and above Day of the Dead altars. It is important for two reasons. First, because paper is perforated, it naturally contains numerous holes. Some believe that these holes serve as portals for the souls that visit their shrines.
The paper is also very fragile. This symbolizes the fragility of life. Again, many Day of the Dead altars serve as a reminder that death can come at any moment.
Numerous Day of the Dead altars also contain candles. They serve the same symbolic purpose as marigolds, helping souls find their way to altars.
Some Day of the Dead altars feature small models or figurines of dogs. This ties in with the belief that dogs help souls find their way to their resting place.
Just as candles and marigolds help lure you into the world of the living, dogs help you return to the afterlife.
If you have the opportunity to see an authentic Day of the Dead shrine up close, you should definitely do it. As you approach the altar, you may find that the experience is multi-sensory.
Day of the Dead altars look clearly attractive and impressive. However, people also often add frankincense to them, resulting in a noticeable scent. They believe that frankincense helps facilitate communication between the world of the living and the world of the dead.
In many ways, the Day of the Dead represents the Catholic faith.
For example, Day of the Dead altars often include lanterns hung from the top of the shrine. These lanterns represent the Star of Bethlehem. The Star of Bethlehem guided the Magi to witness the birth of Jesus and the lantern guides visiting souls back to their resting place.
12. White Cross
Although many people associateSymbols of the Day of the DeadHowever, when it comes to Catholic iconography, remember that they can have multiple meanings.
Cultures and traditions develop and change over the years. The meaning of a symbol does not have to be the same forever, nor does it have to have the same meaning for all human beings.
Consider the example of a white cross. Among many Day of the Dead altars, you will find a quenched lime cross drawn on the floor.Of course, people include this symbol as representing the Christian cross.
However, people used to draw white crosses to symbolize the four cardinal points. This offered another way for the souls of the dead to find their way back to the afterlife.
13. The book
Day of the Dead shrines often have arches where people can leave their offerings. However, these bows are not just for decorative purposes. Arches also symbolize the portal a shrine creates between the land of the living and the land of the dead on the Day of the Dead.
Again, this merging of life and death is at the heart of many Day of the Dead traditions. While we enjoy being alive, we must remember that it is not a permanent experience.
How to Create a Day of the Dead Altar
You may want to make a Day of the Dead altar yourself. You might do this to celebrate the Day of the Dead or simply because you want to work on a project that helps you learn more about a culture other than your own in a more direct way.
To build your own Day of the Dead altar, follow these important steps:
Decide who you want to dedicate the altar to.
An altar on the Day of the Dead is generally not a shrine to the souls of the deceased in general. A traditional Day of the Dead altar is a shrine to a specific loved one.
Deciding who to dedicate your altar to will help you decide how to decorate it and what types of items to place on it as offerings. For example, families often leave toys on Day of the Dead altars for lost children. This is less common when the lost loved one to whom they dedicated an altar was older when they died.
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Choose a flat surface
They usually create a Day of the Dead altar on some sort of flat surface. This can be a table, desk, or similar available surface.
create an arc
Most Day of the Dead altars have arches at one end. Traditionally, you would make this type of bow using cane stalks. If cane stalks are not available, you can create the arch using any other material that will allow you to bend it into the right shape.
Attach the bow to one end of the altar by gluing, gluing or tying. The arch essentially serves as the backdrop for your altar. All objects on the altar will be facing away from it. If you wish, you can decorate the arch with flowers.
Day of the Dead altars often have tiers for displaying items. You can create these levels with crates or crates. Once you've done this, place a colorful tablecloth over the layers and base. You can also add Papel Picado (a type of perforated paper found on many Day of the Dead altars) around the edges.
add a photo
Place a photo of the person to whom the altar is dedicated on the top tier in the center of your altar. You can place more than one photo at this point if you have dedicated the altar to more than one person.
Add the essential elements
To ensure your Day of the Dead altar includes the four essentials, place a pitcher of water, several candles, some type of food, and paper bands or similar items on the altar. While bread is the most traditional staple, consider adding additional treats. The idea is to create a feast for the soul of a lost loved one to rejoice in when it returns to the world of the living.
Add other items
You can decorate the altar and make offerings to lost loved ones with just about any item of your choice. However, if you want your altar to reflect traditional Day of the Dead beliefs, consider using the items listed on this blog. You can also add personal memories of lost loved ones.
Burning incense is the typical way to complete the Day of the Dead altar. The belief is that burning incense clears negative energy and makes the altar more welcoming to the souls of the dead.
The power of tradition
The Day of the Dead is much more than a celebration of bright colors and creative costumes. This kind of celebration can help someoneRemember a family memberwho passed. They can make us more comfortable imagining our own demise. Perhaps most importantly for some, they use our shared cultural experiences to help us face the inevitability of death in a positive and collaborative way.
- Castillo Farfan, Karen. "Deciphering the Food and Drinks on an Altar of the Dead Day."NPR, NPR, October 29, 2014,npr.org
- "Día De Los Muertos: See the Meaning Behind the Altar for Day of the Dead."Latin times, Latin Times LLC, October 19, 2017,latintimes.com
- NALEWICKI, Jennifer. "The Meaning Behind Six Objects on the Day of the Dead Altars".smithsonian magazine, Smithsonian Magazine, October 31, 2019,smithsonianmag.com
- Rumore, Kori, Rick Tuma, Rodolfo Jimenez and Octavio Lopez. "How the Day of the Dead is Celebrated (Explained in English and Spanish)."Chicago Tribune, Chicago Tribune, September 16, 2019,chicagotribune.com