An altar is a portal into the spiritual world, a channel through which we may summon spiritual energy into our lives and commune with our ancestors, spirit guides and saints. Today I would like to discuss a specific type of altar: The Ofrenda for the Mexican Days of the Dead. From October 31st through the 2nd of November, families throughout Mexico celebrate the Days of the Dead which are a time to remember loved ones who have passed. This celebration has its roots in a fusion of traditions and beliefs belonging to ancient Aztec religion and Spanish Catholicism. This festive period is marked with parades, feasting, visits to the cemetery to clean and decorate the graves of loved ones and religious observances. One of the main traditions associated with Los Días de los Muertos is the construction of a special ancestral altar that is only in place for a few days this time of year: The Ofrenda.
Ofrenda means offering and that is precisely what the Days of the Dead altar is, an offering to one’s ancestors and loved ones who return to their homes and families during these few days each year. It is an altar built specifically for this time of year on which foods items such as pan de muerto (a sweet bread often marked with a skull and bones) dishes that the deceased enjoyed in life, tequila, sugar skulls representing the dear departed, images of saints as well as photographs of deceased loved ones and of course bucket loads of orange marigolds (known as cempasúchil in Mexican Spanish) which grow in abundance this time of year throughout Mexico. The ofrenda not only serves as an offering to the dead but a place where returning spirits may congregate and commune with their living relatives. Families often gather around the ofrenda, pray together and enjoy food and conversation while feeling the presence of their ancestors. Often times on the evening of October 31st, there is an official welcoming ceremony for the ancestors where copal incense is burned at the ofrenda and candles are lit to officially greet the dead and invite them into the home. The construction of the ofrenda, in addition to being artistic and beautiful, is a deeply spiritual ritual that fosters communion among family members living and dead as the veil between the spiritual and physical worlds is lifted.
Building an ofrenda is quite simple. I have done it for the past several years simply by decorating my existing home altar more elaborately with sugar skulls, photos of deceased loved ones and a bouquet of flowers for each saint as well as an extra one for all my loved ones on the other side. I currently live in Europe where it’s hard to find the traditional Mexican marigolds, so I usually have a local florist make several bouquets with carnations which are the traditional flowers in this part of the world for All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days. I have also ordered papel picado, colorful banners made out of tissue paper depicting images of smiling, happy skeletons, and strung it across my altar and throughout my home during this special time of year. If you wish you create a Days of the Dead ofrenda, simply find any flat surface or table in your home and place photos of your departed loved ones or simply write their names out on paper. The Days of the Dead include the Feast of All Saints (November 1st), so definitely place any saint statues or images that you have on hand on your altar and decorate as you wish. Most importantly be sure to place a few food offerings, some flowers and light a candle to welcome your departed loved ones back to this world and remember to offer some prayers for them to have a happy and peaceful life on the other side. Since November is the month of the Holy Souls in Purgatory in Catholic tradition, I keep a white candle burning for them the entire month.
I hope you have found this post informative and that you are enjoying the beautiful autumn season. I know I am looking forward to Halloween and this special times of year when we are in such close contact with loved ones on the other side.
As always, I wish you peace, happiness and abundant blessings!