How To Make an Ofrenda Magical
DIA DE LOS MUERTOS IS A DAY FOR YOU AND YOUR LOVED ONES. WE WANT YOU, DEAD OR ALIVE (PREFERABLY ALIVE) TO JOIN US IN LEARNING ABOUT HOW TO MAKE A MAGICAL ALTAR OR AS WE SAY IN SPANISH, “OFRENDA”.
Before we get into the simple way to set up an ofrenda, may I ask, do you know what an ofrenda is or what it means? Ofrenda may be just a word, but oh the meaning and the symbolism. The word ofrenda, means offering. To whom? To our loved ones: our deceased Abue who made the most authentic and perfectly shaped handmade tortillas with the greenest spiciest salsa de molcajete you’ve ever seen or tasted, the Abuelo whose lap you sat on watching El Chavo in the early morning curled up with your cobijita, your primo/a who you would fight with every single time you went to visit the family en el rancho but secretly admired because he had the greatest imagination, and lastly your family dog who your dad swore he would never get and in the end they became the best of friends - those meaningful people and animals who have passed whom we cannot hug or chat with any longer. Yet, on Dia De Los Muertos all of that changes and we celebrate their spirit for two wondrous, colourful and joyous days. It’s a circle of life that we recognize and instead of being sad which we know they wouldn’t want us to be, we rejoice and celebrate them as if they were standing next to us, holding our hands and drinking atole as we sing their favourite songs and dance as a family through the night.
What you will need for a Magical Ofrenda
1. YOUR MAGIC.
It will be magical, because you are magic itself in wanting to create a space that feels like home for your ancestors whom have passed.
My tia told me that if an altar has two levels, it is a representation of the division of the earth and the sky as well as a combination of the elements of the air, rain, wind and sunshine. Altars with three levels represent the sky, the earth and the underworld according to my other Tia. This has connections to the Aztec belief system and in the Christian world view, the three levels could be either hell, heaven and earth or a representation of the Holy Trinity. Altars with seven levels are the most common with Mexicanos and relate to the seven levels that a soul must traverse before reaching heaven (or hell). It also can relate to the Seven Deadly Sins. Do what you wish, it’ll be marvelous however many levels you add.
My mama calls them, “la flor de muertos” or “aztec marigold”. This gorgeous flower is used as a guide for our deceased loved ones spirits to follow as they light the way to the ofrendas where their pictures are present. In the ancient days this flower also was used for medicinal properties and it’s vivacious colour is said to make the spirits feel welcomed and peaceful.
The warm flames from the candles also represent the light that will guide the spirits back home. In some cases each candle is for a specific loved one.
5. BANQUET OF FOOD
This is a celebration! No celebration is complete without food. Some of the typical food that is added to ofrendas are tamales, empanadas, fruta, hot chocolate, mole y pan de muerto: a sweet mouth watering butter based bread mixed with orange blossom representing the dead. “Its traditional round shape represents the body, the bone figures that decorate it all across the sides, represent the extremities and the round piece in the middle, on top represents the skull. There are different shapes and presentations of this bread: some bread makers cover them in sesame seeds, colored sugar and regular sugar.” (Mexico News Network) Of course, adding your loved ones favourite dishes is essential so that when they come to celebrate with you, they can taste the food through the smell!
6. PAPEL PICADO
A very colourful and traditional decoration used in many celebrations. It is intricately cut tissue paper that a lot of the times has stories shared along the paper. Usually we can see the cut outs of skeletons or calacas dancing as a representation of our beloved here dancing alongside side us in the land of the living. The calacas are commonly shown doing what they would have done earth side - moving happily and freely.
7. SUGAR SKULLS
These magnificently decorated skulls are crafted from pure sugar and even given to friends as little forget-me-nots. The lovely eye catching designs represent the vitality of life and how each person is their own individual.
Copal is known as the American frankincense. It is the incense made of resin that comes the copal tree. Copal incense was burned in Mesoamerica in ancient times, and is still burned for special memorable ceremonies and is often placed on or near Day of the Dead altars - it draws in our beloved.
9. WATER AND SALT
The water we set out is for our loved ones to quench their thirst, for it has been a long journey and they are in need of a big glass of water. The salt, that is usually placed inside common clay bowls as well as around the ofrendra is used to purify the spirits visiting. We don’t want anything to contaminate our beloved and so this will protect and purify them in the land of the living and so that the following year they can make their way back to us!
This one is believed to be the most important of all. As the movie Coco has beautifully illustrated to us all, if our beloved’s photograph is not on the ofrenda they are not able to enter the land of the living during the celebration and so they cannot visit us and eventually, as time goes on and our memories fade and their picture isn’t set upon the ofrenda year after year, they will be forgotten.
If you didn’t get a chance to make an altar this past Dia de los Muertos that is okay! Now you have this sweet little guide to help you when trying to make one for next years celebration. Remember, there is no wrong way, just don’t forget their picture, that’s the most important part!
Here are some resources on what can be on an altar: https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2012/11/01/163549325/day-of-the-dead-decoded-a-joyful-celebration-of-life-and-food , https://www.tripsavvy.com/make-day-of-dead-altar-1588750
Carmen Walsh is a Chicas Youth Development Advocate at Adelante Mujeres. She has been writing short stories and poems almost all her life. She finds that putting words down on paper is therapeutic and crucial for us to connect as humans. Paired with coffee, nothing else could be better.