Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is a significant Mexican tradition in which our dearly departed memories and souls are honored. However, it is also celebrated in several other Latin American countries, and in more recent years, pretty much all over the world - basically following the same, or similar traditions as those from Mexico.
The Altar or "ofrenda" usually starts on October 31 and stays until November 2. It is believed that the souls of the departed children start arriving on October 31 and remain until midday of November 1, when the souls of the adults start coming.
November 1 is dedicated to the children that have passed away - "Día de Todos los Santos" (Day of All Saints).
November 2 is dedicated to the adults that have passed away - "Día de los Muertos" (Day of the Dead)
In Yucatan, we refer to this celebration as Hanal Pixan, which in Mayan means "Food of the Souls" (Hanal = food, Pixan = soul or spirit). During these festive days, the traditional food in Yucatan is a larger than usual type of tamal called Mukbil Pollo or Pib.
In our household, we start setting up our Altar between October 30 and the 31st. When we were much younger, my mom would create a small makeshift ofrenda (offering) atop a little table and place photos of family members, mainly our elders, who had departed. She would add a small bowl with salt, a glass of water, a fresh pan de muerto, flowers, veladoras (candles) to light their way home, and a bowl of fruit to nourish them once they arrived. She usually kept all of these items in a "baul" (trunk) so that she could find all of the things easily and in one place every year. On the front of the baul, she had a sign which read, "Hanal Pixan."
As the years progressed, and we lost more and more elders and friends, my sister Reyna and I started helping our mom set up the Altar, which, with each year, grew larger each time. We started adding more photographs, more flowers, more personal items, and more of the traditional objects needed in the ofrendas. We also asked friends and other family members if they would like us to honor their dearly departed alongside ours by placing their photographs on our Altar. This has now become a new yearly tradition to include and meld into our past ones.
Sadly, my mother passed away in 2016, and now her photograph is added to our Altar. We miss her terribly, and we hope that on November 2, she and our other dearly departed friends and family find their way back home to visit us and enjoy their favorite items placed as ofrendas and honor us with their spiritual presence. In Yucatan, we don't use this day to mourn but to celebrate past lives and to honor those loved ones who will forever live in our hearts.
How do we decorate our Altar?
Skulls and Candles / Calaveras y Veladoras
Sugar skulls represent the people who have passed and are receiving offerings at the Altar. The sugar symbolizes the sweetness of life. The candles symbolize love to help the spirits find their way to the Altar.
Bread of the Dead and Photographs / Pan de Muerto y Fotografías
Pan de Muerto represents the generosity of the host and a gift from the earth itself, and the photographs of the departed are placed on the Altar; otherwise the deceased won't be drawn to the Altar and can't cross over.
Salt, Water and Favorite foods / Sal, Agua y Comida favorita
Salt is said to help quench souls' thirst. The salt also helps purify them. Water and sometimes tequila are placed on the Altar because when the souls arrive, they're often thirsty, which also helps fortify them for their return trip. Favorite foods include items that the person liked when they were alive for the hungry souls to partake in.
Marigolds / Cempasuchil
Cempasuchil is the traditional flower used to decorate Altars. It is believed that the strong scent of these bright orange blooms helps attract and guide the souls to their family homes.
Incense or Copal / Incienso o Copal
Incense or Copal attracts the souls of the deceased to the Altar. Because of its close association with religion, it is a strong symbol of prayer and purification. It also helps to keep bad spirits away.
Perforated paper / Papel Picado
It is believed that the decorative holes in the papel picado allow souls to travel through and visit. It's the unity between life and death. It is also considered a representation of the festive nature of el Día de los Muertos.
Toys and Personal objects / Juguetes y Objetos personales, etc
Toys are placed on Altars to entertain the deceased children. Personal objects for the departed adults can include alcohol, cigarettes, candies, etc., or something the departed wore or used in life.
There is no right or wrong way to create your Altar to honor your dearly departed, as each Altar is very personal and made with love. If you are curious how to get started, many books and videos can be found doing a Google search that can help. You can also search our Los Angeles Public Library's database to find many books about El Día de los Muertos.