How to Make a Day of the Dead Altar
How to Make a Day of the Dead Altar
There are many things that come to mind when considering the Day of the Dead - the colours, the costumes, the food! This is a day tied to numerous festivities whose vibrant and vivid elements are meant to be evocative enough to tempt the dead back to the land of the living. Anyone can participate in this beautiful tradition laden with history and symbolism.
What is the Day of the Dead?
Day of the Dead, or Día de los Muertos, is a multi-day Mexican holiday in which friends, family and communities come together to celebrate and remember the lives of loved ones who have passed on to the spirit realm. Although the holiday’s official date is November the 2nd, festivities commence in the days leading up to it.
Day of the Dead traditions are numerous, joyous and lively; nothing about this holiday is meant to be serious or somber. They all revolve around the holiday’s main activity - the building of the altars.
For more information on Día de los Muertos, be sure to check out our What is Day of the Dead page exploring the details and history of this very unique holiday.
Day of the Dead Altars
Day of the Dead altars, or ofrendas, are structures dedicated to the deceased, upon which gifts and offerings are placed in order to guide their spirits back among the living just for the holiday. Altars are indeed the centerpieces of Day of the Dead festivities - many towns even host competitions to see whose altar is the most elaborate and creative. Though altars can vary in size and differ depending on who they are dedicated to, most altars share some of the same elements. The goal is to make it sensorial, whether it be through bright colors, strong scents or lively music, all while keeping in mind the things that would draw a spirit to its altar.
Rules don’t necessarily apply when building your Day of the Dead altar, it can be simple or elaborate, it’s up to you. This is an activity that really allows you to be creative with the time and materials you have.
There are, however, a number of key elements that every altar should include. These will serve as your altar’s foundation:
A sturdy base
- You will need a firm place upon which to build your altar. A table, a shelf, or any flat surface will do.
- Day of the Dead altars consist of a variety of levels, meant to represent Heaven and Earth and the path the spirit travels between them. You can use boxes, crates or books to achieve this effect.
An image of who the altar is dedicated to
- If your altar honors one person in particular, place a photo of them at the top or center. If it’s for more than one person, try to place photos of them throughout. If you decide to build an altar for no one in particular, omitting photos is fine.
Decorate Your Altar
Once you’ve set up your altar’s base is when the fun really begins. There are no set guidelines you need to follow when decorating your altar, so long as you keep in mind who you’re building the altar for, and that it is meant to guide and draw that person’s spirit to it. Traditionally, there are a number of elements that serve a specific purpose, and some that symbolise a deeper meaning:
A tablecloth or pieces of fabric
- These will hide your altar’s base, as well as the materials you use to create the different levels. The more colourful, the better!
- When it comes to the colours this traditional chiseled paper comes in or to the images it can depict, the possibilities are endless, view our Day of the Dead papel picado options here. Papel picado can be used to line the edges of the altar's different layers, or to hang over it elegantly like a garland.
Candles and incense
- Not only do candles guide the wayward spirit’s path to its altar, they do a beautiful job of illuminating your work. The burning of copal incense is customary, meant to purify the air of negative energy.
- Flowers are used in many cultures to pay tribute to the dead, but on Día de los Muertos, the marigold, or cempasúchil, is the flower most commonly used for its bright color and strong scent, believed to aid spirits on their journey.
- A glass of water is often placed on the altar as refreshment for the weary traveling spirit after their journey.
Food and beverage
- Is there a better way to tempt your loved one’s spirit back to Earth than with an offering of their favourite food and drink? Not only does a sampling of their most preferred forms of sustenance reveal a bit more about who they were, it shows how much you love and remember them.
Pan de muerto
- The traditional “bread of the dead” is a sweet baked treat, ubiquitous throughout Mexican panaderías or bakeries during the holiday season. Worry not, baking your own pan de muerto is a possibility if you are unlucky enough to not have a panadería nearby.
Sugar skulls (Calaveras)
- A favourite activity on Día de los Muertos, especially among children, is the decorating of sugar skulls to place as an offering upon the altar. If sugar skulls are difficult to come by where you live, you can always make your own, or use handcrafted ceramic sugar skulls which can add a wonderful and authentic touch to your Day of the Dead ofrenda.
- Considered a symbol of purification for a variety of cultures around the world and throughout history, not only does a pile of salt on your altar protect it from negative energy, it can also be used by the spirit to season the food you’ve offered.
Seeds, grains and coloured sawdust
- A variety of seeds and grains are often used in decorating altars, meant to represent the Earth. Used in a variety of colours and combined with coloured sawdust, one can create beautiful and intricate paths that lead up to the altar.
Objects, clothes or other items related to who your altar is for
- Any available articles that may have belonged to the deceased, such as clothes or jewelry, add a personal touch to your altar. Objects that represent their hobbies or work can be used as well. For example, if your altar is for someone who was a painter, paint brushes, a paint palette or other tools they may have used would make for a perfect addition.
Making a Day of the Dead altar is an easy and creative way to remember the life of someone who has passed on. Whether enjoyed as a solo or group activity, it can even be therapeutic. Don’t be afraid to add your own personal touches in addition to any traditional elements you may wish to use. And above all else, have fun!