How to make a Día de los Muertos altar

A close-up of a Day of the Dead altar at the Escuela de Gastronomía in Roma

I had never built a Día de Los Muertos altar until two years ago. It was my first year in Mexico, so I put up a few photos and some candles, and a sugar skull I’d bought at the Feria de Alfeñique in Toluca. After the holiday was over I didn’t want to take my altar down. It made me feel centered, like I knew where I came from.

This year I was curious about all the altar decorations I kept seeing in the markets. So I took the Día de Los Muertos Ofrendas y Tradiciones course at the Escuela de Gastronomía Mexicana, where I recently (last week!) finished up a diploma program in Mexican gastronomy.

The course would teach us about the tradition of the altar and the history of Día de los Muertos, and we’d get to cook some typical Day of the Dead foods: bean tamales, pan de muerto and calabaza en piloncillo.

Here’s what I learned.

The Elements of a Day of the Dead Altar

First off, you can really make the altar any way you want. There’s no right or wrong way to do it — the idea is that it’s something personal that speaks to you. That said, here are some general elements to include if you’ve never built one before:

1. Flowers

Making a cross out of cempasúchil for a Day of the Dead altar at the Escuela de Gastronomía Mexicana in Mexico City

Cempasúchil, also spelled cempoalxochitl and other various ways, is an orange marigold. It’s Mexico’s traditional Day of the Dead flower and it grows wild in many parts of the country. During Day of the Dead season here, the Mexico City government plants rows of cempasúchil on Reforma. In Mexico it’s customary to include vases of cempasúchil, petals, or rings of flowers on one’s altar. If you live elsewhere, any other seasonal flower would work as a substitute.

2. Fruit — specifically tejocotes and oranges.

A bag of tejocotes, known in English as a Mexican hawthorn apple

Tejocotes are a mild, seeded fruit that taste like a cross between an apple and a pear. No one I know eats them raw. Instead, you boil the fruit in syrup or cook it to make ponche. In the case of the Day of the Dead altar, the fruit, along with oranges and other seasonal items, symbolize the earth’s bounty. And it’s something for your loved ones to eat on their journey into the next world.

3. Papel Picado.

Papel picado for Day of the Dead

Papel picado symbolizes wind. It’s draped around the edges of the altar, or used to decorate the area behind the altar, if needed.

4. Foods your loved ones liked eating.

Food decorations for Day of the Dead altar

A miniature plate of sweet bread and atole, with rice and mole to the left

These little plates of food are made out of sugar and sold at almost any market in Mexico City. In general, the food element of the altar is one of the neatest ways to find out about your loved ones who’ve passed on.

Two years ago, when I was building my first altar, I wasn’t sure what my grandfather liked to eat. He died when I was little. So I called up my mom and asked her. She said spaghetti. (Me: “Spaghetti? Really?”) This year, I put out a little plate of quesadillas for my grandmother. I may also put a few dried spaghetti noodles for my Grandpa Joe.

5. Alfeñique.

Alfeñique Day of the Dead

Alfeñique, the art of making animals and other shapes out of sugar, was imported into Mexico from Europe. Today it’s customary to put a few of these animals on your altar. They’re sold at Mercado Merced and Mercado Jamaica, but the best place place to get them if you live in Mexico is the Feria de Alfeñique in Toluca, which occurs annually in October. Toluca is about 45 minutes to an hour west of Mexico City.

6. Pan de muerto.

Pan de muerto for Day of the Dead

I made this pretty little pan de muerto.

I didn’t realize how regional pan de muerto was. In Mexico City, we’re used to seeing the round domes with thin, knobby “bones” draped on top; in parts of Oaxaca they don’t make bread like this at all. That bread is larger, more eggy, with a woman’s face painted and baked into the top. Other areas of Mexico make bread in the shape of skulls, rabbits, pigs, crocodiles, hearts, or a pretzel shape that symbolizes fertility. It’s customary to place a few loaves on your altar.

7. Bean tamales. The bean symbolizes fertility, too. There’s a lot of fertility associated with this holiday, no?

8. A Xoloescuintle. It’s thought that Xolos helped spirits cross the river into the next world.

9. A glass of water. In case your loved ones are thirsty.

10. Salt. It’s nutritive and it restores bodily fluids. This is usually displayed in a little dish or bowl.

Here’s a final photo of the altar we built at school…

Day of the Dead altar in Mexico City

… and here’s mine at home, which I put together on Sunday.

Did you build an altar this year? What did you include?

Feliz Día de los Muertos!

UPDATE: If you want to make your own pan de muerto, here’s a recipe from Fany Gerson’s My Sweet Mexico that I posted last year.

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18 Responses to “How to make a Día de los Muertos altar”
  1. gloria

    Hi Lesley, your altar is just beautiful. It’s wonderful and needs to be seen. It would be nice if you would link it to Dia De Los Muertos. I know that everyone will love seeing your beautiful altar and how to make one. What a great idea. Thanks for sharing.
    at:http://rodrigvitzstyle.typepad.com/rodrigvitz_style/2011/11/dia-de-los-muertos-and-our-own-dia-de-bloglandia.html

    http://corazon.typepad.com/recuerda_mi_corazon/2011/10/dia-de-los-muertos-lifts-the-veil.html

    The two links above are hosting Dia de Los Muertos, Stephanie and Rebecca. Try to visit their links if you get a chance, you’ll enjoy all the different altars, and if you get a chance stop by and visit my altar. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Jennifer Lewis

    This is great. Thanks for taking the time to explain! We’re planning to go to the cemetery here in Cozumel and take some photos and now I’ll have a better understanding of what everything represents. You’ve also inspired me to go to the Mercado and buy some stuff to create my own!

  3. Gina Hyams

    What a sweet altar you made. I hadn’t heard the notion that papel picado symbolizes wind, but that makes sense. Here’s a link to my family’s altar in Massachusetts this year: http://ginahyams.com/blog/?p=2110

  4. Nancy

    Thanks, Lesley! I love this holiday. I made an altar this year but I see I neglected the flowers and water…. I still have time to fix it up a bit more I think!

    Saludos

  5. Nishta

    I love everything about this post. I haven’t ever made my own Dia de los Muertos altar, I think I worry about co-opting traditions that aren’t mine. but there are many similarities to the way that we Hindus remember our lost loved ones, including the leaving of favorite foods.

    When I lived in Tucson, AZ, I loved being able to watch the parade and other festivities that accompanied the Day of the Dead. I think it says a lot about a culture for it to be willing to keep death close, and not put it so far away, like we Americans so often do. We deny the very way that life works, the fact that death is present, and that the ones we’ve lost are present, too.

    Thank you for posting this!

  6. Joan

    My ofrenda also has photos–of my mom, as well as my cat. I include kitty food for the cat and her favorite glitter ball toy.

    Do you know why sheep (del alfenique)? There are oodles of them in various sizes at the Feria. But most people seemed to buy the calaveras.

  7. Virginia

    When is it proper to remove the altar? What do you do with the items when you take the altar down?

  8. Ted Campbell

    Great post! I´ve never made an altar but I live in Toluca, about 5 minutes from portales. This year I tried to eat everything possible. I wrote about it here:

    http://nohaybronca.wordpress.com/2011/10/29/the-day-of-the-dead/

    If you want to do culinary tours of Toluca, let me know! Green chorizo anyone???

  9. Rey

    Hello Lesley,

    I really enjoy reading your blog. I grew up between Mexico City and Michoacan as a kid but moved to California over 20 years ago. I have to say that my most memorable holiday moments are from the city. It comes alive with all the celebrations, colors, and foods. My favorite part was exchanging those sugar skulls at school with my classmates. I also remember all of our stops at the mercado in Toluca where the family used to buy all those green chorizo tacos and tacos de cecina. Thanks for helping to bring back those memories.

  10. Valeria

    Aztecs thought that when someone dies, their spirit flies away in the form of a butterfly. That explains the cempasúchil: it looks like a monarch butterfly.
    Oh, and tejocote is also eaten raw.
    Beautiful altar!

    • Lesley

      Thanks for clearing that up, Valeria. I hadn’t heard that about the cempasúchil. (Or the tejocote.)

  11. Esperanza

    AHHHH your alter is AWESOME!!!

    I had to go to the US for training this year and didn’t get to do my alter. Too bad.

    I love alters, from modern and contemporary to traditional as they come. They’re always such lovely reflections of not only those who they are paying tribute to, but to those who are putting them up. My first year here in MX I got do do my alter and my grandma came over and it was lovely because she checked out the food and photos and smiled…she was moved. It brought out stories and memories and was warm and our house (que es tu casa) was filled with family, food smells and love.

    I hope one day to travel to the different places that it is celebrated big time (Mexico City, Oaxaca, Michoacan, here in SLP to the Huasteca area) to see the different customs and traditions. Just like the food, the basis is the same, the details are all unique and beautiful.

    • Lesley

      Such a sweet story about your grandma. I wish mine lived nearby so I could share this tradition with her. Next year I’ll have to send her some photos — I think she’d really like it. In regards to DDM celebrated around Mexico, the Museo de Arte Popular in Coyoacán a few years ago organized a display of altars from around the country. I’m not sure if they do it every year, but it was fascinating. The materials, foods, shapes of the altars were entirely different.

  12. Julie

    Okay, *finally* you inspired me to do one myself!
    http://www.midwesternerinmexico.com/2012/10/23/dia-de-los-muertos-homemade-sugar-skulls-an-ofrenda-for-marcia/
    Thanks for the guidance! :)

  13. rebecca

    it looks awsome im going to build mine for the 1st time for a math project im excited hopefully it will look as yours :)

    • Lesley

      Thanks, good luck! Feel free to email me a picture afterward and I’ll post it on my Facebook page. :-)

  14. Kristi

    I loved learning about the meaning of everything, and I especially am enthralled with the sugar animals. I wish I knew how those are made. The one in the picture is darling and I want to hug it!

    • Lesley

      Aren’t they cute? I wish I knew, too. I just recently took a course on how to make sugar skulls, and I think the method is similar — you boil sugar with water and pour it into a mold, then wait until it hardens. I think the animals may contain egg white as well. Something to research!

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