The Day of the Dead altar merges several ancient traditions to honor the dead. They're elaborate shrines with many crucial elements to help our loved ones' spirits return home for one day every year.
I’m often asked why I’m still obsessed with the movie “Coco.” Besides the fact that it's a great story, as a Mexican, I confidently say that the main reason is that it managed to show the world our traditions, beliefs, and realities in such an honest way like perhaps no other foreign production had done before. Naturally, since it's all about the celebrations of Day of the Dead (my ultimate favorite festivity), I’m so happy it made people see what it’s all about. I can’t say how many times foreigners have asked me all sorts of strange questions about it, including my former roommates, who were really scared of my ofrenda (shrine) because they were sure it was some sort of satanic rite to bring back the dead.
Honestly, if this were the case, we would be the richest country ever. I mean, could you imagine how profitable it would be to bring back to life the biggest icons and important people from history? Sadly, that’s not the case. Day of the Dead is just an important festivity that encompasses our syncretic nature through color, emotions, traditions, and a lot of art. So, though the movie actually makes a great job of showcasing all the different elements, it didn’t have enough time to really deconstruct what each of the elements mean (especially when it comes to the shrines), so that’s precisely what we’re doing today.
So, let’s start by talking a bit about the celebration and how the shrines became such an important aspect of it. The celebrations of Day of the Dead are a result of Mexico’s syncretic nature after the conquest. The date comes from the Christian tradition that on November 1st celebrates All Saints' Day (or All Hallows’ Day, which some countries celebrate on October 31st as Hallows’ Eve or Halloween), and All Souls’ Day on November 2nd. These Christian traditions of solemnity eventually merged with the pre-Columbian rituals and offerings honoring death and evolved into a festive celebration with music, food, arts, and dances.
Every state in Mexico has its own particular way of setting up their ofrendas. In some regions, you can find a flat surface with all the elements on it, while in others you can find several levels. The most common ones have three levels, which represent heaven, earth, and the underworld. With more elaborate ofrendas, you can find up to seven levels.
Candles are one of the main elements in every ofrenda. Though candles are the result of the Christian traditions brought during the Conquest, ancient pre-Columbian cultures used ocote (a tree that produces a very flammable resin). The flames don’t only represent the light that will guide the spirits: in some indigenous traditions, each candle represents a dead loved one. In the Christian tradition, it also represents the light of faith and hope.
Also known as the Aztec marigold, or flor the muertos in Spanish, Cempasúchitl has become one of the most important icons of the Day of the Dead celebrations. This flower, used since ancient times for its medicinal properties, brings a unique color to the shrine that makes the spirits feel joyful and peaceful. You can find them in orange and purple, representing the earth and grief, respectively. They are also thought to guide the spirits thanks to their potent and fresh scent.
This is a very common, traditional decoration used in most Mexican festivities. It's a very delicate and intricate cut-out work generally made with colored tissue paper. Each sheet displays a particular figure, and on Day of the Dead, most of them display skulls and skeletons in festive scenarios. The papel picado is used both to represent the festive part of the celebration and to guide the spirits through its movement in the wind.
For many cultures and religions, salt is an element of purification, and Mexico isn’t the exception. Generally, salt is put in small clay recipients or around the shrine to purify the spirits’ soul, so that their body doesn’t get tainted during their journey to the land of the living and they can find their way back the next year.
Water is also a very important element because it's the source of life. It’s believed that, after their long journey, the first thing that the spirits want is a glass of water to quench their thirst. For some indigenous communities, water is thought to represent the purity of the soul.
The copal is an endemic tree that produces a very aromatic resin called copalli, similar to the incense. Ancient pre-Columbian cultures used this resin for religious rituals. Due to its potent smell and the intense white smoke it produces when burned, it’s believed that it will cleanse the space from evil spirits and allow the soul to go back home without trouble.
As you saw in the movie, photographs are of the highest importance when it comes to the shrine, since it's thought that this way they can recognize their own home, though that part of the photo being essential to be able to go back is just for the story. In some regions, the photograph is placed strategically so that it can be seen through a mirror to remind the spirit that they're welcome on this date, but that they have to go back to the land of the dead. Many shrines also include images of saints and virgins to protect the spirits on their journey.
This is a celebration after all, and what kind of celebration would it be without food? There are some elements that can be found in almost all shrines, like pan de muerto (a sweet, round bread that represents the bones and skull of the dead, the cardinal points, and the cycles of life and death) and fruits. Besides that, it’s also common to put the dead person's favorite food on it, so they can taste it through the smell.
They are skull-shaped treats decorated with bright colors. In some cases, people write the name of the deceased on the skull's forehead, but this isn’t really necessary. Sugar skulls are also made with chocolate or amaranth. They are mainly for decoration purposes, and they have become icons not only of this celebration, but of Mexican culture worldwide. They might look appealing and delicious, but I wouldn’t recommend eating one (not even a small one).
It was believed that the Xoloitzcuintli (an endemic and ancient dog breed) would help the spirits cross the Chiconauhuapan river to reach the Underworld. In those times, it was customary to bury a Xolo with the deceased, so that its spirit would guide them. Today, placing a ceramic Xolo or anything alluding to it is more than sufficient, so don’t worry.
As you can see, Day of the Dead is a very complex tradition in which what matters the most is honoring and celebrating those who have departed before us. It has the solemnity and respect for death that Christian and pre-Columbian traditions had, but with the joyful and peculiar sense of humor that characterizes Mexico. All in all, a vibrant, emotional, and colorful festivity to celebrate life and death.
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Cover photo by @julymonst3r