Día de los Muertos - A Traveler's Guide to Altares y Ofrendas
As more and more cities around the U.S. are embracing the Mexican/Latin American tradition of Día de los Muertos, a.k.a. Day of the Dead, travelers are increasingly likely to encounter altares de muertos, or altars of the dead, and the accompanying ofrendas, or offerings. Altars are created to honor deceased loved ones. The altars are set up in private homes, at grave sites, or on public display.
To more fully appreciate a travel encounter with altares y ofrendas, it helps to understand a traditional altar's basic structure and the meaning of its offerings.
An altar is traditionally constructed in three tiers, each tier making an important representation: the underworld, earth, and heaven. From the bottom:
The underworld, home of the deceased, is not depicted as a horrible place of misery and suffering. Instead, the deceased are seen as festive and lively calacas, or skeleton characters. This level of the altar also commonly includes candles and cempasúchil, or marigolds, which light and scent the way for the spirits of the deceased to return to the living for the Día de los Muertos celebration.
Representations of Earth, home of the living, include photos and momentos of the loved one's time on Earth; favorite food, drinks and treats for nourishment after the long journey from the underworld back to Earth; and more candles and marigolds, plus colorful papel picado, or banners of cut paper, for Earthly decoration.
This level commonly includes religious effects like crosses or depictions of Mary (Jesus' mother) and candles whose smoke helps spirits return to the afterlife.
The objects chosen to include on the altar (as listed above) are called el ofrenda, or the offering. As families decide on the offering, care is taken to represent each of the four elements - earth, air, fire, and water:
Earth elements are, of course, found on the Earth level of the altar. These may include fruits, grains and clay pots.
Air is depicted on all levels of the altar. Altar shawls and papel picado, as well as smoke from the candles, blow in the wind (air).
Fire, like air, is represented on all three levels of the altar, in the flames of the candles and the fire-like orange color of the cempasúchil.
Water can be found on the Earth level of the altar, commonly in a clay jar to quench the spirits' thirst after the long journey from the underworld.
Día de los Muertos celebrations around the Midwest
Campfires & Concierges attended an inspiring event just outside the NMMA for Día de los Muertos last year.
Just north of the City, Melissa Haak has several recommendations to celebrate Día de los Muertos in Lake County.
The Figge Art Museum on the Iowa side of the Quad Cities holds a day-long family event, as well as a 3-month exhibit. Thanks to this Visit Quad Cities post for the tip!
Does your city host a great Día de los Muertos celebration? Let us know in the comments!
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Want to teach your kids or students more about Día de los Muertos?
Check out our Día de los Muertos Bilingual Activity Pack, with mini-books and activity sheets, all in English and Spanish!
Plus: don’t miss our FREE Día de los Muertos adult coloring page!
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