Altar Offering and Meaning

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Learn how to set up a day of the dead altar offering at home using all the symbolism and adding our own to fit our family and beliefs for remembering the departed.

Opening the door to our beloved departed placing the altar offering at the entrance of the home

In the Mexican culture, we believe that when we remember and celebrate the departed, their souls never die and continue alive in the spirit. That is why setting up an altar offering at home and including a picture that best represents the departed, and several items will help them in their journey to return home.

But when to start planning the altar offering?

On October 28th begins the arrival of the dead who tragically lost their lives. On October 30th and 31st, dedicated to non-baptized children. On November 1st, it is the arrival of all those who had an exemplary life.

November 2, is the official Day of the Dead. It is when all the souls join with their families to celebrate and enjoy by celebrating the departed and welcoming them back to the world of the living. The celebration includes a feast including tamales, mole, candied pumpkin, atole, coffee, Day of the Dead bread, and much more. We need to start the planning in mid-October and the planning of the menu no later than October 28th.

Opening the door to our beloved departed by placing an altar offering at the home’s main entrance.

Receiving the visit of those who have left us is a tradition with a special mystique. It is about honoring death with different elements because each piece has a significant spiritual meaning.

The celebration must incorporate folklore and religious aspects as well as all the syncretism expressions to allow the souls to arrive safe and sound at the Mictlán or our home.

Water and light to welcoming the departed are elements of the altar offering

Water and light to welcome the departed. Candles symbolize faith and lit the way of the souls.

We can choose to make an altar offering with two, three, or seven levels. The one with two levels represents the sky and the Earth.

The altar offering with three levels represents the sky, the Earth, and purgatory. The seven-level is the full representation of what happens to the deceased in their journey to reach heaven.

Important symbols of the altar offering such as the Monarch butterfly, the dog and the Sacred Heart

Important symbols such as the Monarch butterfly, the dog, and the Sacred Heart cannot be missed.

A cross made of salt, mezcal and our departed pets are also part of the altar

A cross made of salt purifies the dead’s souls and wards off evil spirits. Plus, mezcal for welcoming the adult souls.

Copal and flowers

Copal is part of the altar offering as the symbol of purifying the souls, and flowers represent life’s fugacity.

Pictures, food, and flowers

The ofrenda or altar offering includes food, candies, and everything the departed enjoyed while alive.

The Martin Family reunited with La Virgen del Cobre from Cuba

Shopping list for setting up an altar offering at home:

  • Shop for Cempasúchil or marigold of the dead and the red cockscomb flowers. Both have different meanings and provide a colorful set-up.
  • The marigold of the dead evokes the sun and helps guide the souls with its unique aroma, and fiery color that shows the way back home, attracting our faithful departed to our home. And the red celosias or cockscomb flowers represent the blood of Christ.
  • You need an arch and a path with marigold petals. Represents the door that welcomes souls to the living world.
  • Shapes or actual figurines of the Monarch butterfly represent the souls on their way to visit the world of the living.
  • Another element is the copal incense representing the prehispanic ancestry of the Mexican culture. It drives away evil spirits and allows the souls to enter the world of the living safely.
  • The image of a dog that will help the departed cross safely.
  • You will need several candles; each lit candle represents light, faith, and hope, guiding the spirits to arrive and leave safely. Adding purple candles and purple colors signifies bereavement.
  • Water and salt are other elements needed. The water is placed to gift a drink to the soul that has traveled for days.
  • It also represents the purity of the soul and life itself. A cross made of salt as a way of preserving and purifying the soul on its trip to the present world and back.
  • Sugar skulls in different shapes and sizes. These are a reminder not to fear death as, in the end, it could be sweet.
  • Papercuts using colorful options representing joy.
  • Pictures of the departed, preferably when they were young.
  • Add images with saints or an image of the Virgin Guadalupe.
  • Bread, a variety of foods, candies, and fruits.

The list might be lengthy, but you will see everything comes alive, and the setup will look beautiful to exceptionally welcoming your beloved.

Sugar Skulls are part of the altar because the dead can be sweet too. Plus, the offering includes toys for welcoming departed children and younger souls.

Personalized sugar skulls are a must for the Day of the dead celebration

Celebrating the departed and setting up has nothing to do with Halloween.

The celebration has a spiritual meaning rooted in prehispanic and evangelization beliefs. For us Mexicans, this is how we honor and remember those that are not anymore in the physical world but that live in our hearts.

a mexican calavera

Are you ready to plan for your family’s Day of the Dead celebration and set up your altar offering? 

Chef Adriana Martin
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