Day of the Dead Uniquely Mexico

How to Build a Day of the Dead Altar


What is Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead)?
Day of the Dead is the holiday that most reflects the culture of Mexico.  In the pre-Hispanic Mexican culture, life/death is viewed as a single reality, and all of life is engaged in the perpetual process of creation and destruction.  Like people everywhere, Mexicans fear death, but we have a special relationship with it; we mock it, joke with it, tease it, dance with it, create art about it, and most of all honor it publicly.

When to Build your Altar (Ofrenda)

The tradition of Día de los Muertos is that on November 2nd, the souls of the deceased can visit their beloved families in this world.  The lights of candles and petals of zempoaxochitil (marigolds) guide each soul to its own altar and house so they can celebrate and consume what has been prepared for them.  Altars are typically constructed on November 1st.  Many altars in private homes in San Miguel de Allende are open to the public on the evening of November 1st.

Materials for your Altar

  • Cardboard boxes
  • Papel picado – tissue paper with cut-out shapes
  • Table to form the base of your altar
  • White table cloth
  • Photo of the person(s) to be honored
  • White candles – 1 for each person to be honored
  • Copal incense
  • Flowers – zempoaxochitil (Marigolds) are the traditional flower used on the altar.   Zempoaxochitil is also known as the flower with 400 lives from the Aztec traditions.
  • Sugar skulls or candies.  The sugar represents the sweetness of life and the skull the sadness of death.
  • Food and drink.  Traditional meals and favorites of the departed are prepared and placed on the altar.  Some of the traditional foods you see in Mexico are tamales, agua fresca (fruit-flavored water) and atole (hot chocolate-flavored corn drink), tequila and pulque.
  • Basin of water, soap and towel for the departed spirit to cleanse before joining in the festivities.
  • Pitcher of water and glass to quench the thirst of the departed one.
  • Photos of patron saints or the Virgin of Guadalupe

Step One:

Cover the boxes with paper picado.

Step Two:

Place the boxes on the table in 7 tiers forming a pyramid.  Each tier represents levels of the underworld.

Step Three:

Place objects on the tiers – photos, candles, flowers, sugar skulls, incense, water, food and drink.

Step Four:

Light the candles and incense then prepare a path from the front door to the altar with petals of marigold to guide your loved one to the altar.

Learn More about Día de los Muertos

Dia de los Muertos in Mexico

Visit Oaxaca, Patzquaro or San Miguel de Allende to participate in traditional Dias de los Muertos celebrations. While you’re in San Miguel, stay at Casa Quetzal. Owner and artist Cynthia Price has a special Dia de los Muertos package for guests that include your very own altar-building kit and instructions for constructing an altar while you are in San Miguel. Visit the hotel now….

About the Author

maria-teresa-copalMaria Teresa Valenzuela is an indigenous spiritual teacher and healer from an enduring lineage of shamanic healers and curanderos in the Sierra Madre of Chihuahua, Mexico. Taught the shamanic medicine way by her grandmother and father, she brings to her work a wealth of knowledge in Mesoamerican wisdom, myths, and traditional forms of indigenous medicine and healing. Drawing on her indigenous heritage, career as a registered nurse, life experiences, and traditional training as a “Mujer de la Medicina,” Maria Teresa serves as a unique bridge across traditions and cultures. She travels throughout the United States, Mexico, and Central America sharing her healing gifts and wisdom.

Maria Teresa conducts spiritual workshops, retreats and individual healing work using indigenous healing methods and visionary medicine plants.

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