One of the most important elements of Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico is the making of an ofrenda – a number of offerings arranged around an altar. Day of the Dead is the time of year when the deceased come back to Earth to visit their friends and family, so Mexicans feel that is very important to do everything they can to firstly facilitate this journey, and secondly give the souls a very warm welcome. The ofrendas vary hugely in size and design, but almost all Mexican families will make one in their home; there are many compulsory components, although these too vary slightly by region.
Pre-Conquest Aztecs dedicated most of the month of August to the goddess of death Mictecacihuatl, but the influence of the Catholic Church that arrived with the Spaniards moved it to coincide with All Saints Day on November the 1st and All Souls Day on the 2nd. The current Day of the Dead festivities are therefore a result of ‘spontaneous syncretism’ between Pre-Hispanic celebrations of death and the Catholic tradition of All Saints. It is really interesting to see the different elements mixed together and there are many kinds of ofrendas, some of which have a more religious, indigenous or regional emphasis. For example, the ofrenda at my work was centred on teaching the children about Mexico’s pre-Hispanic traditions (including hot chocolate made from the water used to washed the body of the deceased!); Puebla’s public ofrendas featured famous Poblano characters and a lot of local talavera pottery; and the ofrendas in Huaquechula had a far more heavily Catholic flavour. Authentic ofrendas (as opposed to those made for tourists) are always dedicated to specific individuals, and the first Day of the Dead after somebody has died there is always a huge party held in their honour; in the following years a smaller ofrenda is made.
Some of the essential elements of the ofrenda are:
Cempasúchitl – also known as flor de muerto (flower of the dead), it is the bright orange-yellow marigold which fills the markets and the streets in the run up to and throughout Day of the Dead celebrations. The bright and strongly scented flower is crucial for decorating the altar to make it pretty and colourful; the petals are scattered on the floor around the ofrenda and in a path to the front door in order to guide the deceased to those awaiting them.
A glass of water – this is really important for quenching the thirst of the dead, who have had a long and difficult journey from the afterlife back to Earth.
Copal – the incense burned at the altar, with the belief that its strong and distinctive aroma calls the spirits.
Candles – a number of candles are lit to light the way, again to help the spirits find their home on Earth.
Hojaldra – also known as pan de muerto (bread of the dead). There are many types of pan de muerto, but hojaldra is by far the most popular and recognisable for its distinctive shape which represents the tomb, skull and bones.
Food and drink – the ofrenda is always decorated with the person’s favourite food and drink.
Toys and sweets – if the deceased is a child, toys and sweets are also included to make sure that the spirit feels happy and at home when they visit.
The ofrendas are generally installed from the 28th of October to the 2nd of November. The 28th is dedicated to those who died violently or suddenly in accidents; at noon on the 31st the souls of children are awaited; on the 1st of November adults who died naturally are welcomed; and the 2nd of November is the day of graveside vigils when people visit cemeteries in their thousands to clean and decorate the graves, eat their beloveds’ favourite foods, and pass the day and night recalling stories and memories of the lives lost.
At work we made an ofrenda to accompany Day of the Dead celebrations with the children, therefore it is a more child-oriented one with lots of sweets, candy and chocolate skulls, brightly coloured papel pikado, sticks of sugar cane and bright flowers.
In my house, a far smaller ofrenda was made, typical of those found in the ordinary houses of Puebla. Crucially, it has the photos of loved ones and little trinkets which invoke memories of them (including Sofia, the family dog!), little sugar versions of their favourite fruit, hojaldra, candles and water. The marigolds are missing, but this is only because the baby in the family was very poorly all week and there wasn’t time to buy them.
More public, tourist-friendly ofrendas were made all around the city centre, making a ‘Corredor de Ofrendas‘ in a trail to follow with different themes based on Puebla’s history. These were less traditional but no less impressive.
Huaquechula is a small municipality just under an hour away from the city of Puebla, whose ofrendas are famed for their grandeur, bringing tourists from near and far. It is a tradition of the town that each family which has a member who has deceased in that year will make a public ofrenda in their house. This year there were twenty-two deceased and therefore a route of twenty-two altars to visit. They are very proud of this tradition and incredibly hospitable – visitors are offered traditional Mexican refreshments such as agua de tamarindo, agua de jamaica and atole inside the homes. The ofrendas are extremely elaborately decorated according to the gender, age, occupation and personality of the person who has died. They feature more religious aspects such as crying angels, which represent the grieving family; the photo of the deceased is indirectly viewed using a carefully positioned mirror, representing the rift between life and death; and many of their favourite things from clothing to cigarettes.
Huaquechula was a really lovely, traditional, tranquil little Mexican town, hosting a former Franciscan convent and a troupe of voladores (‘flying men’). I have already written about voladores, but I saw the best display yet in Huaquechula and managed to get some better photos so I have included them here.
As you can see, the size, scale and intention of ofrendas varies hugely, as much as the extent to which people believe that the spirits really do visit. But it doesn’t matter so much whether they do or they don’t, it’s a really lovely way to remember the dead, celebrate their lives, and share the memories.