By now, mostly thanks to the movie Coco, many of you may already know about this Mexican tradition and what it means. But, did you know that the Day of the Dead is also considered an Intangible Cultural Heritage by Unesco?
Every November 1st and 2nd many Mexicans make an ‘ofrenda’ (altar), either in their houses or on top of their loved ones’ graves, as a way to remember and spend time with those who have passed away. A ritual that merges the Mesoamerican offerings to the gods of death and the Spanish/Christian rituals for All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day. But also, a beautiful and colorful celebration of what it means to be alive.
If you want to learn more about the Day of the Dead, read this post.
Things you’ll need for your Day of the Dead ofrenda
Every state adds different elements and changes the arrangement, but these items are the most common ones:
1. Portraits of the departed.
2. Incense. For a Mesoamerican touch, preferably a copal scented one, like this.
3. Tea light candles. To be on the safe side, use these flameless ones.
4. Items previously owned by the departed (small tokens like toys, books, jewelry, etc).
5. Favorite dishes and snacks of the departed. Many families cook their beloved ones’ favorite meals and put a small portion on the altar.
6. Tons of Cempasúchil (Marigold flowers). You’ll need full flowers and loose petals. If you can’t find them, make ones out of orange and yellow tissue paper.
7. Papel picado (pecked paper). It could the traditional banners made out tissue paper, like these. Or plastic ones, like these.
8. Pan de muerto (Day of the Dead bread) or any kind of bread.
9. Sugar skulls with the name of the departed written in the forehead. You can also chocolate ones or these cute salt & pepper shakers and add a sticker to the forehead.
10. Glass of water.
12. Ash to make a cross. We used black sand, like this one.
13. Liquor bottle to toast and celebrate. Of course, it has to be Mexican beer, tequila or mezcal!
What does your ofrenda represent and how to make it
A Day of the Dead ofrenda is mostly built in three layers to represent heaven, purgatory and earth, and it’s surrounded with an arch made out of marigolds or pecked paper, which symbolizes the doorway to the underworld that your loved ones will use to come and greet you.
On the ground you’ll place the cross, which will be the Christian representation of your grief and their sorrow for the sins they committed in their life, and a path made out of marigolds and candles to guide and illuminate their way back home. Along with the incense, which will purify the souls coming forward and protect the space from evil spirits.
Distributed around the other two layers add: portraits in honor of the departed, more candles (they also represent Faith), tons marigolds, favorite food and snacks and personal objects. Plus, one sugar skull for each departed to allude death, ‘pan de muerto’ or any bread (it denotes fraternity and the body of Christ being shared), a small bunch of salt to purify and protect the souls during their travels, a glass of water to calm their thirst after the long journey, and liquor to mark their arrival and celebrate their lives.
And the colorful pecked papers? They portray the joyfulness of reuniting with your loved ones once again. An essential Mexican touch that will make the whole thing come to life!
When to put up your Day of the Dead ofrenda
The dates are related to the age of the departed. November 1st is to celebrate the children (All Saints’ Day) and November 2nd, the adults (All Souls’ Day).
Some people put up the ofrenda the last days of October and keep refreshing the flowers until November 3rd. The key is to light the candles and place the photographs and food the night before the celebration (either 31st or 1st).
You don’t have to be Mexican to take part in this tradition. ’Cultural appropriation’ is a term that’s being used very lightly these days, and celebrating the Day of the Dead shouldn’t be placed in that category. If you like the ritual of setting aside one or two days to remember your departed loved ones and putting up an ‘ofrenda’ (altar) in honor of them, go ahead and do it. And if someone suggests otherwise, tell them two Mexicans gave you permission.
The Day of the Dead is an ode to life and death and to the memory of those who have passed away, and anyone can relate to that.