Wondering What The Day of the Dead Altars Mean?

 Wondering What The Day of the Dead Altars Mean?

We explain in this summary


In the heart of Mexico, as October turns to November, something truly magical takes place. Streets come alive with marigold petals, sugar skulls with intricate icing, and the air fills with the sweet aroma of pan de muerto. It’s a time when the past and the present intertwine, a celebration that transcends the boundary between life and death. Welcome to the world of Mexican Day of the Dead altars.

Marigold’s Golden Embrace: At the heart of these altars lies the marigold, or “cempasúchil” in Nahuatl, the ancient Aztec language. Its vibrant, golden petals are said to guide the spirits back to the world of the living. With a fragrance that can awaken even the sleepiest of souls, marigolds pave the way, their bright color symbolizing the sun’s rays, a promise of hope and renewal.

Sugar, Spice, and Everything Nice: One cannot speak of Day of the Dead altars without mentioning sugar skulls or “calaveras.” These sweet confections, adorned with names, are not meant to be gobbled up but cherished as a representation of the dearly departed. A pinch of sugar, a dash of quirkiness, and a little bit of tradition all rolled into one. Their toothsome grins remind us that death is not to be feared but embraced as a part of life’s grand tapestry.

The Four Elements, Four Pillars of Life: Ofrendas are often constructed with four levels, each representing one of the four elements: earth, water, fire, and wind. Earth, embodied by the grains and fruits, signifies the sustenance of life. Water quenches the souls’ thirst after their long journey, its mirror-like surfaces reflecting the souls’ image. Candles and papel picado (colorful paper cutouts) represent fire, guiding the spirits with their warm glow. Finally, the wind carries the essence of copal incense, purifying the air and creating an otherworldly ambiance.

Personal Touches and Favorite Delights: One of the most touching aspects of these altars is the inclusion of the deceased’s favorite food, drink, and possessions. The photograph of a grandfather, a childhood toy, or a cherished book—they all find their place on the ofrenda. It’s a way of saying, “You may be gone, but you are not forgotten.”

A Celebration of Life: Día de los Muertos is a celebration of life as much as it is a remembrance of those who have moved on. It’s a time to honor the rich tapestry of existence, a moment to revel in the memories shared with the departed. Through the ofrendas, we bridge the living and the dead.

The Profound Meaning of Altar Levels: Let’s dig deeper into the profound meaning of the levels of Day of the Dead altars, or “ofrendas.” These multi-tiered structures carry a rich symbolism that reflects the connection between the living and the deceased, the physical and the spiritual, and the elements that sustain life:

1. Earth (La Tierra): Symbolism: The bottom tier of the ofrenda represents the earthly realm, the physical world in which we live. It is often decorated with items like fruits, grains, and vegetables, which are considered gifts from the earth. These offerings symbolize the nourishment of life and the abundance of the natural world. Earth also signifies the foundation of existence and the cycle of life and death. Purpose: Placing food from the earth on this level is a way of providing food to the returning spirits, as well as a reminder of the connection between the living and the deceased. It acknowledges the role of the earth in sustaining life.

2. Water (El Agua): Symbolism: The second tier represents the element of water, which is essential for life and has cleansing properties. It is common to place a container of water on this level. The water serves to quench the thirst of the visiting spirits after their long journey back to the world of the living. Purpose: Water is a symbol of purity and renewal. Its presence on the ofrenda ensures that the spirits can refresh themselves and feel welcomed by the living. It signifies the transition from the spirit world to the physical world.

3. Fire (El Fuego): Symbolism: The third tier is dedicated to fire, often represented by candles. Candles not only provide illumination but also symbolize the element of fire, which is associated with transformation, energy, and warmth. Additionally, papel picado, colorful paper cutouts, may decorate this level to cast intricate shadows and create a festive atmosphere. Purpose: Fire guides the spirits with its light, helping them find their way to the ofrenda. It represents the enduring presence of the departed in the hearts of the living. The flickering flames are a symbol of life’s ephemerality and the ever-changing nature of existence.

4. Wind (El Viento): Symbolism: The top tier, representing the element of wind, often features copal incense. Copal is burned to create fragrant smoke that purifies the air and carries prayers and messages to the spirit world. It also symbolizes the ethereal nature of the spirit world and the connection between the realms. Purpose: The aromatic copal incense cleanses the atmosphere, making it welcoming for the returning spirits. The rising smoke is believed to carry the spirits’ blessings and messages to their loved ones. It serves as a bridge between the earthly and spiritual realms.

5. Ash and Salt Crosses (Cruces de Ceniza y Sal): Symbolism: Ash and salt crosses, often placed on the ofrenda or at the entrance of homes, are powerful symbols of protection and purification. Ash, derived from burnt copal incense, represents the element of fire and is believed to purify the space and cleanse it of negative energies. Salt, symbolizing the Earth, serves as a barrier to ward off evil spirits and protect the living from harm. Purpose: The crosses made of ash and salt create a sacred and safe space for the spirits of the deceased to return to. They also ensure that the ofrenda remains a place of reverence and respect. The act of forming these crosses is a ritualistic gesture that signifies the preparation of the space for the spirits’ visit.

6. Floor Tapestries (Alfombras de Aserrín): Symbolism: Floor tapestries, known as “alfombras de aserrín,” are colorful, temporary artworks created by sprinkling colored sawdust or sand onto the ground in intricate patterns and designs. These tapestries can be seen both within homes and along the streets during Día de los Muertos. They are expressions of creativity and devotion. Purpose: Floor tapestries serve multiple purposes. They are a form of decoration that adds to the visual spectacle of the celebration. More importantly, they are symbolic pathways that guide the spirits to the ofrendas. The intricate designs often include elements such as flowers, crosses, and skulls, all of which hold cultural and spiritual significance.

Cultural Heritage and Community Bonding:

  • Artistic Expression: The creation of ash and salt crosses and floor tapestries is a form of artistic expression and craftsmanship passed down through generations, less and less popular every time.
  • Community Bonding: The act of crafting these symbols fosters a sense of community and unity. Neighbors and family members collaborate to create these intricate designs, strengthening social bonds and the sense of shared cultural heritage.

Spiritual Guidance and Connection:

  • Guiding Spirits: Ash and salt crosses, along with floor tapestries, guide the returning souls to the ofrendas. They serve as markers to ensure that the spirits can find their way to the offerings and the loving embrace of their families.

Impermanence and Transience:

  • Temporary Art: Both ash and salt crosses and floor tapestries are temporary in nature, mirroring the temporary nature of life itself. They are created with care and dedication, knowing that they will be swept away or scattered by the wind after the celebration ends. This impermanence reminds us of the fleeting nature of existence and the importance of cherishing each moment.

Papel picado:

Papel picado is a captivating and symbolic element of Mexican Day of the Dead altars, known for its complicated paper cutouts that decorate the ofrendas and celebrations.

  • Artistry in Every Cut: Papel picado, which translates to “perforated paper,” is a traditional Mexican folk art that dates back to pre-Columbian times. Craftsmen and artisans skillfully cut intricate designs into colorful tissue paper, creating delicate and ornate patterns. These designs often feature geometric shapes, flowers, birds, and other motifs inspired by Mexican culture and nature.
  • Symbolism of Fragility and Life: The fragile nature of papel picado carries profound symbolism. Just as the paper is easily torn or damaged, it represents the delicate boundary between life and death. It reminds us that life is transient and that the veil between the living and the deceased is thin during Día de los Muertos. This fragility also highlights the idea that memories and love endure even in the face of impermanence.
  • Decoration and Ambiance: Papel picado is not only an element of ofrendas but also a prominent feature in Día de los Muertos celebrations. Threaded overhead in colorful banners, it casts intricate shadows and creates a festive atmosphere. The cutouts sway gently in the wind, adding to the sensory experience of the festivities. They infuse the surroundings with a sense of joy and remembrance.
  • Spiritual Guidance: Papel picado serves as a guide for the spirits of the deceased. Its presence on the ofrenda and throughout the celebration helps guide the spirits back to the world of the living. The perforated paper is believed to allow the spirits to pass through, bridging the gap between the physical and spiritual realms. It provides a visual pathway for the returning souls.
  • Cultural Heritage and Craftsmanship: Crafting papel picado is a cherished tradition passed down through generations. Artisans take great pride in their work, and the creation of papel picado remains an important cultural heritage. The intricate patterns and vibrant colors reflect the richness of Mexican culture and the artistry of its people.
  • Personalized Tributes: Papel picado can also be customized to include names, dates, and messages dedicated to specific loved ones. These personalized cutouts add a deeply personal touch to the ofrenda, allowing families to pay tribute to their ancestors and express their love and remembrance.

In Mexican Day of the Dead celebrations, Papel picado is not merely a decorative element; it is a visual representation of the cultural values of remembrance, fragility, and the lasting connection between the living and the deceased. Its presence invites us to reflect on the beauty of life’s fleeting moments and the power of memory to keep loved ones alive in our hearts.

In Conclusion, as the marigold petals drift on the breeze, the Papel picado dances, the smell of copal fills the air, and the candles flicker in the night, Mexican Day of the Dead altars stand as radiant testaments to the enduring power of love, memory, and the eternal bond between generations. In their beauty and depth, they invite us all to join in the celebration of life, a dance that transcends the boundaries of time and space. And the main message during día de muertos is the living and dead are always connected.


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