Day of the Dead

Day of theDead – Oxaca, Mexico

Latino Arts’ annual Day of the Dead Pfrendas celebration in Milwaukee features a bright and eclectic collection of ofrendas (altars) prepared by local, regional, and international artists on display for the first 3 weeks of November.  Exhibiting presenters share their tributes to lost loved ones as a celebration of their lives and accomplishments, often decorating their altars with their loved ones’ personal effects and favorite items.

Homemade altars are built to entice those who’ve passed to the other side back for a visit for Dia de los Muertos, a tradition originating in central Mexico on Nov. 1 and 2.  Altars are used to welcome the ancestors’ spirits into the home.  It is also common practice to visit the ancestral burial ground to celebrate with picnics and music.

The Aztecs developed the ritual over 3,000 years ago because they believed one should not grieve the loss of a beloved ancestor who passed. Mourning was not allowed because it was believed tears would make the spirit’s path treacherous and slippery.  The Aztecs celebrated their lives and welcomed the return of their spirits to the land of the living once a year with offerings of  food, drink and music. During the Spanish conquest, Catholic leaders exerted their influence on the tradition, the resulting in changes to the Day of the Dead celebration.

A Day of the Dead altar is usually arranged on a table top that is used exclusively for the altar, or it is built from stacks of crates. Altars have at least two tiers, sometimes more. The table or crates are draped with a covering of cloth,  paper, or plastic. An arch made of marigolds is often erected over top of the altar.

Everything on an altar has special meaning:

Monarch butterfly: These butterflies, which migrate to Mexico each fall, were believed to be the spirits of the ancestors coming to visit.

Marigolds – These yellow-orange flowers symbolize death. Their strong fragrance also help lead the dead back to their altars. Marigold petals may also be sprinkled on the floor in front of the altar, or even sprinkled along a path from the altar to the front door, so that the spirit may find her way inside.

Incense – Most commonly, copal incense, which is the dried aromatic resin from a tree native to Mexico. The scent is also said to guide the spirits back to their altars.

Candles: represent fire and are a light guiding them back to visit the land of the living.

Papel picado: Delicately decorated tissue paper, draped around the altar’s edge or hung from above,
represent wind and the fragility of life.

Toiletries: A hairbrush, a mirror,  soap, and a small towel, may be left so a spirit can freshen up after reaching the altar.

Ceramics and woven baskets: Ceramics and baskets may included in Day of the Dead altars.

Food: Traditional foods found on altars include atole, mole, tamales, and tortillas. Altars usually include the dead person’s favorite foods.

Sugar skulls: Elaborately decorated skulls crafted of pure sugar and given to friends as gifts and also placed on altars as offerings. The colorful designs represent the vitality of life and individual personality.

Pan de Muertos: Semisweet breads are baked in the shape of bones, with a small human figurine inside, and dusted with sugar.  It’s considered good luck to find the tiny surprise in your slice. Breads are also used to represent the soil.

Seeds: Pumpkin seeds or amaranth seeds are offered as snacks for the visiting ancestral spirit. In pre-Columbian times, Aztecs used amaranth seeds instead of sugar to make the skulls.

Salt: represents the continuance of life.

Water – Souls are thirsty after their long journey from the Other Side, s a glass of water may be placed on the altar.

Alcohol: Bottles are offered to toast the arrival of the ancestors.

Photographs: Images of loved ones who have died are placed on the altar.

Dogs: were believed to guide the ancestral spirits to their final resting place in the afterlife.