TAFA: The Textile and Fiber Art List

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Symbolism of Day of the Dead Altars

Exhibit of altars at Museums of Port Isabel.

Today and tomorrow are big days of celebration in Mexico. The Day of the Dead honors those who have passed on to the other way, but also acknowledges the fine line between the living and the dead, a line of perceived reality where the dead still walk among us. This time of passage is historically connected to Aztec practices of harvest and transition. Synchrotism under the Roman Catholic Church moved the date to the current holiday, making it coincide with All Saint's Day, or Halloween.

Creating an altar to honor the dead is a central part of the celebration. These are erected both at home and at the cemetery. The altar's decorations all have deep symbolic meaning explained well in this video while "Llorona" (the crier) is sung plaintively in the background:

Jim and Mindy, two Americans living in Veracruz, Mexico, document their life there through their blog, Solarhaven. They photographed this altar in 2007:

As explained in the video, Mexican altars have several symbols found commonly on the altars. Go Mexico has a wonderful guide on how to make your own altar. The most used symbolic elements include:

  • An arch: This is the portal to help the dead through. Traditionally, sugar cane stalks are used.
  • Photos: Images of the beloved and other deceased icons (often famous artists, actors and musicians)
  • Water: The source of life, refreshes the spirits. The video also showed leaving soap and a towel so that the spirits could dust themselves off after such a long journey.
  • Candles: Light, faith and hope, the candles light the way for the deceased. They are often placed in the shape of a cross.
  • Incense: Copal clears the way from any bad spirits that might be hovering around.
  • Flowers: Marigolds are the official Day of the Dead flower. They represent the impermanence of life.
  • Food: A special bread (pan de muertos) accompanies any favorite foods the beloved might have had. Sugar skulls also decorate the altar and can be eaten after the festivities.
  • Personal items of the deceased: Small objects belonging to the beloved are placed as a reminder of the time when they were alive.
There are many other traditional symbols that can be added, but these are the main ones. As the Southwest of the United States was once Mexico, the Day of the Dead has always been practiced there, too. The photo below is from an excellent article about Mexican Americans in the United States (Every Culture).

Mexican-Americans celebrating the Day of the Dead

As we have become more conscious about multi-culturalism we have seen the Day of the Dead become adopted by non-Mexicans. Perhaps because the celebration is so life affirming, the chance to look at death with humor, dignity, and hope makes this day one that so many want to embrace. The altars themselves, have also become a tool of protest in many communities. For example, this altar honoring civil rights leader, Rosa Parks (who was not Mexican), was on BoingBoing:

When I lived in Chicago, I saw many altars over the years used as protest symbols against gang violence or other tragedies. Cultural centers engage youth and local artists in altar competitions that often result in powerful testimonials on society and its inequalities. St. Mary's College of Maryland has an altar competion every year for its Spanish classes. This one is a loud protest against drunken driving.

If you have never experienced the Day of the Dead, seen its altars or enjoyed all the whimsical skeleton art that is associated with it, definitely take a look around you and see what local happenings are honoring the dead. If you are in a larger city, there will definitely be something going on. Many smaller communities also now have displays and exhibits, often lasting on into the middle of the month.

The Day of the Dead is a great way to take some time to think about life, to remember those who have passed and to honor both their place and ours in this little world we call ours.

Day of the Dead books and gifts on Amazon
(Purchases help support this blog)



  1. These are so wonderful.
    Please join Stephanie
    and Susanna
    we are having a blog-wide celebration of the day of the dead\in a cheerful way.
    Came to you via High Desert Diva.

  2. Beautiful images, I love the old black and white one best.

  3. Very interesting piece about altars becoming social statements. I hadn't heard of neighborhoods creating anti-gang altars before. Thank you for participating in the Dia de Bloglandia event.


“Sing like no one's listening, love like you've never been hurt, dance like nobody's watching, and live like it's heaven on earth.”

“Whatever you say, say it with conviction.”

(Both by the master, Mark Twain)

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