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Offerings for the Ancestors:

Days of the Dead Ofrendas

The festivals of Mexico are world-renowned for their colorful decorations, energetic music, exuberant parades, and cultural significance. Los Dias de los Muertos, the Days of the Dead, is no exception. Often misunderstood by those who live elsewhere, this festival honoring the dead is one of Mexico’s most important holidays.

As Americans prepare for Halloween at the end of October, the people of Mexico turn their attention to the traditions surrounding the Days of the Dead. A vibrant cultural synthesis, Los Días de los Muertos combines the Catholic traditions of All Saint’s Day and All Soul’s Day (November 1st and 2nd, respectively) with pre-Columbian concepts of death that have been a part of Mexican society since ancient times. According to the tradition, the souls of the departed return to earth for a 24-hour period during the Days of the Dead.

Preparations for the celebration include making special foods and sweets, cleaning the graves of loved ones, and making memorial altars called ofrendas. Ofrendas are erected in homes for family members who have died. They are decorated with items the deceased enjoyed in life. An ofrenda usually consists of a table that is placed in front of an arch made of sugar cane or bamboo, or a wooden frame, which is decorated with marigolds and a variety of fruits and vegetables. The marigold or zempascuchitl (sem pa SUE cheetl) is the traditional flower of the Days of the Dead. Its strong scent is believed to lead the souls back home, and sometimes flower petals are spread in paths leading from the street to the doorways of the homes.

The table in front of the arch or frame is covered with a nice cloth. Photos of the deceased are placed with respect on the ofrenda along with flowers and candles. Special foods, bottles of soda pop or other favorite beverages, candies, and loaves of bread shaped like bones (called pan de muerto) are common offerings. Burners with copal, a strong smelling plant resin, are also placed on ofrendas. As with marigolds, the scent of copal is believed to attract the souls of the dead. A traditional ofrenda will have items representing the elements of water, fire, earth, and wind. A glass of water is offered to quench the thirst of the souls who have come to visit. Fire is represented by candles, and the earth by the fruits and vegetables or other foods that are placed on the ofrenda. Light tissue paper banners of papel picado flutter in the breeze, representing the wind. Often, a small dish of salt is added as well to purify the air. Frequently, personal items such as a wristwatch or pieces of jewelry that belonged to the deceased are also placed on the ofrenda. Ofrendas are decorated lavishly with sugar skulls, papier mache skeletons, and more. An ofrenda is a testament to the creativity of its maker or makers as well as a moving memorial to the deceased.


Lesson Plan: Making an Ofrenda