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:
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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…
… 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.
Who is Mija?
Mija is Lesley Téllez, a food writer and culinary guide in New York City. I spent four years in Mexico's Distrito Federal, which launched my deep love for Mexican food and culture. In 2010 I co-founded the tourism company Eat Mexico.
Be kind, ask permission!All photos on this site were taken by me, unless otherwise noted. If you'd like to use a photo, please email me.
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