As we celebrate the day of the dead in Mexico, we gather all the elements to create our altars honoring are loved ones. The ofrenda is usually set up on a table or a straw mat on the floor. The Aztecs honored their dead with fiestas and rituals connected to the season of harvest. We start the offerings on the 31 of October, the day of Samhain, when the veils between the worlds of living and dead are at their thinnest. The sacred place is filled with white flowers, sugar skulls representing the loved ones, copal burning to invoke the spirits, and a glass of water and a plate of salt as a conduit for them to manifest. On the 1st of November we pay tribute to the deceased children, we place yellow marigolds, with white candles, a fresh glass of water and new plate of salt. And we offer them food at every meal. The 2nd of November is called the “Great” Feast for the Dead, paying tribute to the deceased adults. We prepare a meal of rice, mole and chicken, enchiladas, pozole, tamales, black beans, corn tortillas, fresh fruit, jicama, chocolate, mexican sweets, beer, tequila, pulque and cigarettes. The bread symbolizes the human skull, the mole is derived from the nahuatl word molli meaning a sauce made of chile. Tamales also are derived from the nahuatl word tamalli meaning food made of corn. Chocolate is derived from the nahuatl word xocolatl, referring to sound of cocoa seeds being boiled in water as they release their essence. Corn, black beans, chile, chocolate and squash are very sacred to the ceremony as they feed and sustain life in both worlds. The objects on the ofrenda are meant to share the pleasures of life with the dead. Pulque, beer and tequila are served as a reminder of their good times on earth. Papel picado is paper cut-out with designs of skeletons, flowers, birds and coffins, used to decorate the altar. Purple banners represent mourning and hot pink and orange signify the return to the land of the living. Yellow marigolds, called zempoazochitl in Aztec, carry the smell of death, which leads the deceased back home. Images of favorite saints with ribbons are placed on the altar, favorite possessions and objects are laid out to give the dead the feeling of being home again, as the candles are being lit, the names of the departed are called out, asking them to come back home, letting them know that their families await them. The flame of the candle lights the way, bringing the wandering soul back to the family. In Mexican culture the process of creation and destruction are one. The ofrenda is an offering of gratitude and love that families feel while the visiting spirits are honored, no soul is left unacknowledged. An Aztec legend tells of a paradise where a tree of human breasts provides mothers milk for the Angelitos. They enter the earth at noon on their day and must depart by noon the following day. On November 1st, the church bells announce the arrival of the elder traveling spirits, the Faithful Dead are honored and remembered. They return to earth seeking nourishment, community and remembrance.
Photograph by Carlos Jasso