So, you want to celebrate the Day of the Dead, huh?
Good! It's a beautiful holiday. There are many ways of doing it and — with the exception of a horrible pseudo-fiesta in which you put on a racist-ass costume and get crunk on bad mezcal — none of them are wrong.
Traditions change all the time, and this one has evolved immensely since its birth in the early days of colonial Mexico. Latino communities in the U.S. in particular have found a myriad of ways to reinvent the celebration, incorporating new practices like parades and costumes to the age-old custom of visiting cemeteries and decorating graves with orange marigolds.
But maybe you want to be a bit more elaborate and do it like we do in the old country. In that case you've come to the right place, friend. Your humble correspondent did some research – i.e., called his mom (which you should do more often, by the way, your mom misses you) — to write an easy step-by-step guide to creating your very own Day of the Dead altar.
Before we go ahead, though, it's important to emphasize that what I'm about to describe is not the only way to do it. Every family in Mexico has their own traditions. This is simply the way my mom does it and the way her mom did it, which I wanted to share.
But why the hell do you need an altar, you ask?
The Day of the Dead is the product of a unique mixture of worldviews. When the Spaniards colonized Mexico in the 16h century — yeah, that horrible incident — they began converting indigenous people to Catholicism. That process, though, was not a one-way street. The original inhabitants of Mexico adopted the faith of the king, but they retained many of their old beliefs.
One of the results of that mixing is the Day of the Dead. At the core of the tradition is the idea that the dead are allowed to return to Earth once a year. But don't worry, gringo — this isn't a zombie-apocalypse scenario, but more of a bittersweet family reunion.
The problem is that the path from the netherworld to the land of the living is a long and treacherous one. The altar serves as a kind of beacon to guide the souls of the dead to your house. The powerful scent of flowers and incense, the glow of the candles, and the brightly colored papel picado all act as a giant cross-dimensional welcome sign to ensure that your grandmother makes it safe to your living room.
The altar also serves as a communal table. You will place food and drink for your otherworldly visitors, who don't get to eat mole and carnitas very often and will be very happy that you made their favorite food for them. You are welcome to some of the food, of course — but be polite and let your guests eat first. Wait until the morning before attacking.
Now that we got that out of the way, here is how you build a Day of the Dead Altar.
1. First of all, set up a table with three different levels.
The levels will represent the underworld, the Earth, and heaven. You can set them up by placing a big, upside-down cardboard box on top of a table. The floor will be the first level, the table the second, and the box the third.
Cover the table and the box with two table cloths — a purple one, to symbolize mourning, and a lacy white one, to represent purity.
Hang papel picado above the table. Learn how to make these beautiful garlands here, gringo.
2. Next, set up a representation of a graveyard in the lower level.
Take a bunch of ash and scatter it in the ground to make a cross. The cross shape represents a grave; the ash is a reminder that we are "ashes to ashes, dust to dust." (Where do I get a bunch of ash, you ask? I don't know, gringo. Burn some newspapers. Print is dead, amirite? But do it safely, for the love of god.)
Next, scatter a bunch of cempasúchil petals on the floor. These are the "flowers of the thousand petals," better known as orange marigolds.
Also, light up some tea-light candles. These will serve to guide the soul of your dearly departed out of the grave.
Finally, set up a small mat in front of the grave so that the dead can wipe their feet after they step out of the grave.
3. Now set up food and otherworldly offerings in the middle level.
The middle level represents the realm of the living, so prepare a full feast with the bounty of the Earth! The underworld doesn't have cornfields, y'all.
First of all, place a big glass of water on the table. The dead are going to be thirsty after climbing the millions of miles that separate them from the Earth.
Then make the dead person's favorite food. It doesn't have to be Mexican. Did grandma love shepherd's pie? Then make her shepherd's pie.
Booze is always an important part of a welcome celebration, so a bottle of liquor is in order.
Include some sweets — pan de muerto, or dead man's bread, and calaveritas de azucar, or sugar skulls.
And finally, don't forget to include a little bowl of salt. This has some kind of obscure religious significance that has something to do with unbaptized children. My mom couldn't remember. In any case, it's almost certainly super important. Throw some candles in for good measure.
4. Next, set up a representation of heaven in the higher level.
This is where stuff gets intensely Catholic. Place a crucifix on the top of the altar. You can also add an icon representing your favorite saint, if you are into such things.
Set up a big bowl of Mexican incense, or copal. If you can't get copal, well, I guess regular incense will have to do. (Isn't that what being an immigrant is all about? Making do? But I digress.)
Add a big bunch of orange marigolds and a few more candles.
5. Finally, place a photograph of someone you love in the center of the altar.
This is so that the dead person you love knows they are invited. You can place more than one picture — and they don't have to be people you knew personally. Feel free to remember your favorite writer, singer, or historical figure. This year, for example, the patriarch Gabriel García Márquez will be remembered by many.
Here's a helpful cheat sheet so you can make sure you have everything you need in the altar.
So there you have it, gringo. Now you know how to celebrate the Day of the Dead like a Mexican.
Invite a few friends over and talk about the person you lost. Have a few drinks. Be as sad as you need to be, but also be merry.
(A hat tip to my mom, Laura, who makes the most beautiful altars and has a supernatural ability to forgive me for not calling her enough.)