The Latin American, and especially Mexican, tradition of Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is a time to remember and celebrate loved ones who are no longer with us. Far from morbid, the day or days (which can encompass the widely celebrated Catholic All Saints Day November 1st, and All Souls Day November 2nd) have a celebratory quality. In Mexico and other places, people play music, enjoy family, and make and enjoy special breads, pottery, puppets, paper cut-outs, dancing skeletons, and candy skulls. Brightly colored marigolds adorn displays, as the flowers’ scent is said to attract souls and bring them back.
While the holiday’s timing and spirit may seem to match Halloween, it’s actually different and predates it by about 1,500 years, to 3,000 years ago, when it was an approximately 40-day celebration based on two months of the ancient Aztec calendar and centering on the corn harvest in what is now August. Ancient corn festivals offered opportunities to share the harvest with the deceased.
Our modern culture is one of the few that doesn’t often recognize the role of ancestors or spirits. 2,000 years before the Aztecs, Babylonian festivals were devoted to the return of the dead. Much later, the Medieval Irish burned bonfires at Samhain (October 31 – November 1), the beginning of their winter, to entice dead spirits to visit. Dia de los Muertos offers a contemporary, colorful and meaningful way to honor those who have come before us and recognize that, while we can’t bring them back, their spirits and essences may live on with us.
Anna made an altar, or ofrenda, with her lovely 2nd grade teacher, Susan Falkenrath, to help her be more connected to a grandfather she didn’t know and remember a grandmother who had recently died. We still have the very light-hearted ofrenda in a prominent place in our house. (Traditional ones have a lot more temporary offerings on them, such as real food and flowers.) It does serve as a nice way to keep the departed close to us.
Her teacher had a cut-out form for the ofrenda‘s shape, but it’s easy enough to create your own with boxes and paper. Because ofrendas honor the lives of the deceased, Anna’s included her grandparents’ favorite foods, in clay form, their photo, and items about their work and play.
To make your own, you’ll need:
A shoebox or oblong tissue box and one or two more increasingly smaller boxes (large enough to work with your photo and frame – see below. Traditional ofrendas often have three tiers.)
Cardboard or a large flat box lid
Construction paper, wrapping paper or fabric
A photo of the deceased
Colorful tissue paper
Modeling or polymer clay
Branches or wire
Scissors or craft knife
Other items or mementoes, as desired
Paint and brushes, optional
Think about the ancestors you are honoring: What were there hobbies and interests? What was their favorite food?
Cover and wrap your boxes in construction paper, wrapping paper or fabric, so that there are no openings.
Glue the boxes, one above the other, smallest one on top.
Use the box lid or cut a rectangle of cardboard, 1-2” or more larger than the photo all around.
Glue the photo to the cardboard or lid. If desired, paint or paper the cardboard first and/or decorate the frame of the photo with drawn pictures depicting the ancestor’s hobbies, or with construction paper cut-outs of skulls.
Place the cardboard or lid behind the largest box, if large enough, and glue to secure it, so that it shows above the boxes. If the cardboard is smaller, follow these directions:
Cut 4 pieces of cardboard, 2” x 1”. Fold each in half. Glue two to the front and two to the back of the photo cardboard, to make L- shaped feet. Glue the bottom of the “L”s to the top box, so the photo stands up.
If desired, construct an arch out of paper or branches and place it around or in front of the photo, poking the ends into the top box to secure it.
Because it’s traditional to offer the deceased their favorite food, in addition to bread, fruit or candy. have fun making miniature clay food and placing it on the tiers of the altar. Some altars also include soap, so the loved ones can “freshen up” after their journeys.
Make other clay or paper decorations, as desired, perhaps representing more of the loved one’s interests, to place on any of the tiers. You may want to add real or paper flowers anywhere on the altar, or make a string of paper cut-outs (papel picado) and string them across the top of the arch or the picture.
Here are some nice examples of papel picado:
Enjoy more ofrenda photos.
Feliz Dia de los Muertos!
Photos: Public Domain (first two), Chuchomotas, Susan Sachs Lipman, esacademic.com