A Día de los Muertos Altar is the focal point of holiday celebrations. It is an important way to honor the dead and welcome them back to the land of the living. Here are 10 essentials to order now to prepare your Ofrenda.
Post last updated September 15, 2023.
What do you love most about Día de los Muertos? Setting up our Day of the Dead altar, or Ofrenda, is my favorite part of the holiday.
The Ofrenda is where you place photos of your deceased loved ones and special items that remind you of them; like their favorite foods, drinks, perfumes, flowers, anything really that brings back their memory.
On Día de los Muertos, (November 1 and 2) the candlelight, sweet smelling flowers, and good food on the altar is what guides your family members back to you for a short while to visit.
In the past we’ve done it several ways. Armando and the kids built an altar one year out of wood and we used that for a long time until we moved from North Dakota back to California.
It got ruined in the move and for the past few years we have simply used a wooden desk as an altar and it works too. Once we move into our new home I’d like to build another more intricate one again, but until then we will use what we have and I want to encourage you to do the same.
If you don’t have a Day of the Dead altar tradition it really is a beautiful way to celebrate the lives of those who have passed before us and almost everything you need to make a simple altar can be bought online. But the time to order is now so you will have everything by November 1.
What traditionally goes on a Día de los Muertos Altar?
A Dia de los Muertos or Day of the Dead Celebration isn’t complete without an altar. Each altar is specific and unique to the home and people who make it, but there are a few important elements that should be on every altar including:
- Pan de Muertos bread
- Flor de Muertos
- Paper in the form of Papel Picado or tissue paper flowers
- A cross
- A glass of water
- Photos of the ones you wish to remember
How to Create a Simple Día de los Muertos Altar
1. Set up a table
The first thing you need is a table. It can be as big or as small as you’d like. Find a simple folding table, or we use a wooden desk and cover it with a colorful cloth like this Serape Tablecloth.
Many Ofrendas are built in different levels, usually two or three layers, the top layer representing heaven and the bottom layer representing earth. You can use something as simple as shoe boxes tucked underneath the tablecloth to make the layers.
2. Add Cempasúchil
Garlands of marigolds or Cempasúchil are found on almost every Día de los Muertos altar in Mexico. Marigold flowers use their color and scent to guide the spirits back home. I love this reusable garland from Lola’s Mercadito.
3. Decorate with Paper Flowers
The paper flower tradition is very strong too. If you have time you can make your own paper flowers out of tissue paper, their delicate nature represents the fragility of life, or buy these gorgeous Cempasuchil Large Pink and Orange Paper Flowers from Mexico In My Pocket.
4. Give you Día de los Muertos Altar Some Glow
Candles are essential and you can go traditional or honor the dead by lighting one of these Cempasuchil Calaverita Candles from Mexico In My Pocket. These floral candles are handmade in Teotitlán del Valle using natural dyes like cochineal and indigo. Perfect for your Dia de Muertos altar and celebrations.
5. String Strands of Papel Picado
Papel Picado can be strung from the ceiling above the altar or on the wall behind. You can find it in any kind of design you’d like, whether that be skull and cross bones or specific Day of the Dead scenes like this miniature Papel Picado from Mexico In My Pocket.
6. Represent The Sweetness of Life
7. Quench Their Thirst
A Talavera pitcher like this one from Zinnia Folk Arts is perfect for holding water on your Ofrenda. A glass or pitcher of water is often placed to refresh parched soul’s thirst from their long journey.
8. Place Physical Representation
Brightly colored figurines like these handmade clay figures from Lola’s Mercadito are common on a Día de los Muertos altar. You can find figurines of people or pets in any number of poses, holding a variety of objects. Find one that reflects your relatives.
9. Allure With Scent and Smoke
Copal incense is traditional on Dia de los Muertos altars because the strong scent from the rising smoke is believed to attract spirits and clear the air of negative energy so they may easily enter. If you like this idea, make your own smudge sticks now and have them ready for the holidays (they take two weeks to dry).
10. Don’t Forget The Sweet Bread
Building the altar isn’t complete without food or drink. Pan de Muerto is the traditional “Bread of the Dead”. You can certainly make your own sweet, round loaf of Pan de Muerto or purchase one to offer the dead who will be hungry from their long journey.
Other common items are bottles of tequila, a dish of salt, or your loved ones favorite foods.
What to Eat and Drink on Dia de los Muertos
Traditional food for Day of the Dead can include everything from mole, rice, braised meat dishes and fall fruits and vegetables like pomegranate and pumpkin. Here are a few of our favorite recipes to make for Día de Muertos:
- Roasted Mushroom and Goat Cheese Gorditas
- Vegan Refried Beans
- Grilled Fish Tacos with Sweet Corn Salsa
- Vegan Pozole Verde
- Homemade Flour Tortillas
- Coconut Tres Leches Cake
- Authentic Chile Relleno
Show Me Your Día de los Muertos Altar
I would love to see your ofrendas! Share your pictures on Instagram and tag me @holajalapeno so I can see!
These resources helped me write and create this post:
- The Meaning Behind the Altar For Day of the Dead by Latin Times
- Lola’s Mercadito
- Mexico In My Pocket
- Zinnia Folk Arts
- Mexican Sugar Skull
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