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.
Plan: Making an Ofrenda