Friday, October 30, 2009

Creating an Altar for Día de los Muertos

Tomorrow begins the holiday of Halloween or for Latinos, The Day of the Dead.  In this posting I will focus on the tradition of creating an altar for a family member, ancestor, or beloved friend who has died.

I hope you'll remember that all folk traditions have countless variations, from locale to locale, from family to family. I will explain the way I learned to make an altar from the tradition of my particular ancestors: Spanish colonials who came to California from the mountains of northern Mexico, probably via New Mexico and Southern California, into the gold and silver mining country which is now Sonora, California.

The most important aspect of preparing the ofrenda/altar is to select a suitable area of the home, where food can be left out for several days without being upset by pets, insects, or playful children. The kitchen or family room is an excellent choice, as well as a mantel or hearth.  When you set up the altar on Hallow'een, you are taking advantage of a particular aspect of duende (roughly translated a spirit or "vibe) in which the veil between this world and the next is supposedly very thin.  

Therefore, although there is play and humor involved in decorating your altar, there is a sense of welcoming the actual spiritual vibe that you associate with the person or persons you are honoring.  In the case of humor, it should be such a humor that assuages grief, longing or unsettled business with the soul you are honoring.  So, one gathers photos, artifacts and mementos associated with the ancestor or friend, as well as favorite foods, even weaknesses, such a Coca Cola, Lucky Strike cigarettes, or possibly, as in one ofrenda I remember, a model of a Harley motorcycle!

If you can gather marigolds, do so; their odor, which I find a bit acrid, is supposed to guide the spirit to your altar.  Any bright flowers will do in a pinch, and chrysanthemums certainly have a similar odor.  You can spread a pathway of flower petals leading to your altar, or build an elaborate archway above it, as in the photo from Oaxaca above.

Once you have gathered photos, mementos, favorite foods and flowers, you can begin building the altar.  It should, in my tradition have three tiers, to represent heaven, the skies and the earth. At the top I put the photos, at the middle the mementos, and on the lowest tier, the food. Many people cut picados, tissue paper cut with lacy designs.  This is to represent the thin veil through which the departed can revisit the earth.  

Arrange your ofrenda to your liking, and if possible add as many of those wonderful tall glass votive candles with images of Jesus, Mary and all the saints as you can.  They offer protection and light, and whether or not you are a believer in saints, they look authentic and festive. These are available at most grocery stores these days, but all safe-to-burn candles serve well. A cross or two and some bread bones or sugar skulls add authenticity.

When your ofrenda is complete to your liking it is time to celebrate, between answering the door for trick-or-treaters, or greeting friends for your Día de los Muertos party.  The holiday officially lasts for three days, during which revelers make visits to the graveyards where they decorate the headstones and eat picnics by torchlight.  Often there is music and dancing.  On the last day, the marigolds are removed from the ofrenda, and a trail is made of the petals away from the house. The family eats whatever food remains on the altar (assuming the cat has left you some) and the spirits of the departed are bid farewell for another year.

In many of the Latin American countries this tradition is alive and well, and seeing resurgence in the USA. Among people who realize that this is a meaningful way to celebrate the way the departed "remain" with us, a very human celebration of the human condition.  No matter what walk of life you have been born into, you will experience loss.  Human life, however we avoid the fact, is finite and fragile. To be able to reminisce about and celebrate the dead, is almost to have them living again.  The veil between us and the ones we miss becomes as permeable and unimposing as the picado paper lace.   Feliz días de los Muertos: October 31st - November 2nd.

To read more about the origins of this holiday, visit my other blog:

1 comment:

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