By Marcela de la Mar, Mexican Cultural Center for Latin Life Denver Media
November 1st and 2nd are one of the most important holidays of the Mexican calendar: the Day of the Dead, a celebration day when the souls of our deceased relatives return home to partake with the living and feed off of the essence of the food that is offered in domestic altars.
Altars are considered one of the most important elements of Dia de los Muertos; comprised of fascinating mixtures of symbolism stemming from both native traditions and beliefs brought to Mexico by the Spanish conquistadors. Within Mexican tradition, the altar and its offerings are an invitation to our beloved deceased to be with us in remembrance and in spirit. The altar must include four basic elements coming from nature: earth, wind, water, and fire. Each one is carefully represented within the offerings.
Earth: Is represented with food. The altar displays the favorite recipes of the dead so they can taste their essence. It also includes the Bread of the Dead; to the nahuas this symbolizes the presence of Mother Earth.
Wind: Is represented with the movement of objects. In this case the colorful tissue paper cut into skull or flower cut shapes, lightly moves with the wind.
Water: Represents the life. The water helps the beloved deceased with their thirst, since they have traveled a long journey.
Fire: Is represented with candles, which symbolize light and life. This light also helps the souls to find their way to meet their family and friends.
The ‘ofrenda’ or offering is any item placed on the altar which represents a gift to the deceased: be it their favorite food, a particular smell or a shot of tequila, ‘ofrendas’ are our way of showing our love towards deceased relatives. The altar is a complex creation with incredible symbolism as each elements carries specific meaning.
Cempasúchil Flowers: this yellowish flower came from our soil and has a brief appearing. However they always bloom again, like life itself.
Incense: Scented copal is used for calling our deceased and also to greet the gods. The incense has been used since prehispanic time.
Sugar Skulls: these candies in shape of skulls remind the living that life and memories are sweet. It is a custom that friends and family give sugar skulls with your name on it.
Levels: The number of levels in an altar of dead varies by region. These represent the ancestral worldview: there are two, three levels and up to seven levels.