You have probably heard of the Day of the Dead traditions in Mexico, which are celebrated the night between November 1 and 2 each year. A major part of this celebration is building an altar to honor the dead. Do you know how to make your own Day of the Dead altar?
The indigenous peoples of this region believed that the spirits of their loved ones who had already left the earthly plane visited them once a year. To summon the spirits, relatives placed offerings and objects such as their favorite food, musical instruments, toys, etc.
In addition to their favorite earthly objects, the Day of the Dead altars are adorned with marigold flowers. Their petals are placed on the altar and in front of it, forming pathways to guide the spirits to the altar. As well as portraits of those being honored and celebrated.
If you're thinking about building an altar but don't know where to start, here's a step-by-step guide of objects you can find at home and convenience stores. Here’s a checklist of what goes on an altar for Day of the Dead to gather all the materials before you begin:
Once you have all the Day of the Dead altar items on hand, you can begin. There are different Day of the Dead altar ideas but here’s a simple way to make one at home. This is the step-by-step guide for making a 3-tier altar.
One of the Day of the Dead traditions is that the altar has a semi-pyramidal shape. For that, we first form a rectangle with 12 boxes (4 x 3) on the floor. To ensure the base doesn’t separate, use tape to hold cardboard boxes together and yarn or nail with wooden boxes. Then, cover them completely with one or more tablecloths, as needed.
The second tier is a square using 4 boxes (2 x 2) which are centered and aligned towards the side that will be the back, leaving 8 boxes of the first tier free that will be the front of the altar. Then we repeat the process of securing them together with tape, yarn, or nails and covering them with tablecloths as needed.
Finally, we will place a single box centered across the second tier but equally aligned to the back, creating a pyramid shape on 3 of its sides, except the back, which should be flat. An excellent way to ensure the stability of our altar is to put the flat side against a wall.
Don’t forget to wrap the top tier as the rest. Although altars usually have between three to four tiers, you can do as many levels as you’d like. However, keep in mind that the larger your altar, the more of what goes on an altar for Day of the Dead you’ll need.
Once all of your tiers have been constructed, it's time to start putting the Dead Day decorations on the spaces around the second and third tiers. Although the decor is based on creativity, there are Day of the Dead altar ideas that are more common.
The first thing would be to cover or hang perforated paper (Papel Picado) around each tier. Then, scatter marigold flower petals on top and distribute the vases full of flowers at different points. In the same way, place the candles, the sugar skulls, and the rest of the objects of the Day of the Dead altar at different points where you think they look best.
There is no specific order, except for the photos of the honorees, which are usually placed centered on the altar, either on the second or top tier. We highly recommend using votive or prayer candles and not regular candles, as the latter can cause a fire more easily if they fall.
The most important thing is to honor your deceased loved ones, and there’s nothing like making a Day of the Dead altar in their honor to remember and celebrate them!