The Day of the Dead (“Día de Muertos” in Spanish, not “Día de los Muertos”) is one of the most ubiquitous traditions of Mexican culture. While the most easily recognizable aspects are probably the various representations of skulls and skeletons, the one that holds the most meaning for those celebrating is the altar, or ofrenda in Spanish. In many ways the ofrenda is what the whole celebration is about. Because of this, in order to really understand what it is about it is helpful to know a little about the meaning and the significance of the whole celebration.
History and origins
In many ways, the Day of the Dead is the quintessential Mexican holiday because it seems to blend European Catholic traditions with Pre-Hispanic Mesoamerican influences more clearly than other festivities. Celebrated around November 2nd, it coincides with the Christian All Souls’ Day. Scholarly research suggests that the modern celebration is essentially the Catholic holiday with a bit of a Pre-Columbine façade. But where those influences came from and how they got there is not as straightforward as one might think, and that makes the ofrenda the way it is in many ways.
The reason it is not a clear cut story is that the standard narrative that the Day of the Dead has its origins in particular Mesoamerican celebrations (Aztec, to use one example) has little evidence behind it. Instead, it seems that many of the native cultures in what is modern-day Mexico, and in particular the Aztecs, had practices that in many ways resemble some staples of the Day of the Dead and the ofrenda in particular as we know them today. Those have been retroactively identified as sources for the contemporary celebration. The Aztecs did actually, for example, make food offerings to the deceased, and even crafted figurines sculpted from food as representations of the dead to which the offerings were then made. But this was not a universal practice, as not every dead individual was necessarily the subject of these offerings, and the figures had very different roles than the ones they have today, even the dates on which this happened was different from the modern holiday. Nonetheless, these apparent parallels seem to have been used to retroactively identify an origin story that not is probably not there.
Finally, it is important to keep in mind that a lot of what we know about the practices of the native population in what is now Mexico comes from chronicles written by the Spaniards at their arrival and during the conquest of the Aztec Empire and other Mesoamerican civilizations. A great deal of these chroniclers were Catholic priests tasked with bringing the natives into their faith. So even when they tried to be accurate, and many of them like Fray Bernardino de Sahagún certainly did, we must not lose sight of the fact that the practices and traditions that they were seeking to understand, were the same ones that they were trying to eradicate. This was often the reason that the research was being carried out, and the writings served as a tool for that purpose. All of this casts doubt on how much we can actually know about the practices of that period and therefore how much of the possible Pre-Columbine origins of the holiday can be traced.
While it is important to be clear on the facts, it should also be noted that, in a very real sense, whether the Mesoamerican origins are authentic or not, this seems to be the story that has stuck in the popular imagination. The fact that no other nation seems to celebrate All Souls’ Day in such a grandiose manner gives credence to this story. Now, regardless of how the ofrenda came to be, it is, at its most basic, an offering of food to a deceased person, often a loved one. It is in this particular aspect of the Day of the Dead that most of the Pre-Hispanic influence is found in the popular imagination.
Research does suggest that the Mesoamerican to present-day continuity is a somewhat imagined one. Yet, whether real or imagined, the ways in which the celebration is described as descended from Pre-Hispanic rituals has definitely colored the way it is celebrated. While the Day of the Dead is probably most accurately defined as a special kind of All Souls’ Day festivity, it still has some elements that are not standard Christian doctrine. It is these elements that give the ofrenda its meaning. The significance of the ofrenda, is that it is left for the souls of the deceased to come back and be able to enjoy their worldly pleasures once more. Now, this last bit, whether it has actual basis on Pre-Columbine tradition is something that almost every Mexican would be able to identify as the purpose of the ofrenda. All of these things give it its characteristic flavor.
A typical ofrenda is a simple concept. It consists of a set of items that will identify the person to whom it is dedicated along with staples of the celebration such a pan de muerto, a traditional sugary pastry adorned with bone and skull shapes made from the same bread, and marigold petals. The items that identify the person will include photographs, personal items that belonged to them, but can also include food other than the traditional one which the person in question particularly enjoyed. They will most commonly be built on a table which will be adorned with a tablecloth and china paper cut in patterns.
The standard altar will more or less be something like this: A table will be set up, if possible with two levels, by using a smaller flat surface on top. All of that will be covered on a bright-colored tablecloth and adorned with china paper cut in different patterns. On the higher up section photographs of the person will be placed along with their belongings, if available. Indicating that the offerings are meant for them. Personal items, will vary according to the age of the deceased. For children, it is common to place toys on the altar. In some places, they are even remembered separately as angelitos (little angels) on the day before. However, the overall ritual remains unchanged. The lower portion of the altar is where the offerings are placed. The food will be placed here. Normally it will include traditional Mexican cuisine like tamales and mole, but also fruit such as oranges and sugarcane, as well as food or other items (cigarettes are a popular addition here) that represent the honored person’s particular tastes. Finally, it will also include a selection of food products particular to the date like calaveritas de azúcar (sugar skulls) and pan de muerto.
It is important to note that none of the items have a particular significance in and of themselves in general. It is true that some of them will have it, as it is the case with marigold in certain regions, as described earlier, but, for the most part, the meaning is only acquired as part of the ofrenda. This can be readily seen by the use of these same items in different contexts. Pan de muerto, for example, while only made around October and November, does not have any specific ritual attached to its consumption. When it is not part of an ofrenda, it is eaten just as one would any other pastry. Sugar skulls, are another interesting case. While they’re a common inclusion in ofrendas, that is not even their main purpose. Rather, they are humorously given to living friends and loved ones, often with their names inscribed on them. The choices of food have more to do with the deceased’s taste and their being traditional Mexican dishes than any specific symbolism around them. All of this is because, in the end, the metaphysics of the holiday, so to speak, are not particularly deep and complicated. It is at its core a way to remember loved ones by sharing a meal with them as one would when they were alive.
Because of this, for some people the ofrenda altar is all there is to the day. This is the case in urban communities and middle or upper-class settings. It was certainly the way I always experienced it. But in rural and indigenous communities, the ofrenda can turn from an object to a full event. That is, the spirits of the dead received then the ofrenda is prepared and set up and finally the spirits are bid farewell. While some much of this is a family matter, in many cases the whole community will be involved. More recently, the Dead parade in Mexico City was, as a whole, dedicated to the victims of the 2017 earthquake, as a form of collective ofrenda. This parade, only the second edition, is a completely new event that was actually inspired by the film Spectre, which depicts a similar one. While this last instance in particular cannot be considered traditional in any meaningful sense, it does show that the concept of the ofrenda is not necessarily a rigid one and that it is very much open to being re-interpreted.
- Marta Turok, “The Altar: A Creative Horn of Plenty”, Artes de México, No. 62 (2002)
- Stanley Brandes, “Sugar, Colonialism, and Death: On the Origins of Mexico's Day of the Dead”, Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 39, No. 2 (Apr., 1997)
- Stanley Brandes, “Iconography in Mexico's Day of the Dead: Origins and Meaning”, Ethnohistory, Vol. 45, No. 2 (Spring, 1998)