Design Your Día de los Muertos Altar

The meaning and essential elements of the ceremonial ofrenda

Design Your Día de los Muertos Altar

Featured above is La Catrina Negra. Find the recipe here.

Despite the proximity in days, Día de los Muertos (Nov. 1) has nothing to do with Halloween. The sacred ancient Aztec holiday is meant to honor our ancestors, spend time with memories, and appreciate the beauty of mortality. One of the most exciting traditions to celebrate involves the construction of a special altar, or ofrenda. While altars are also commonly found in public spaces, stores, and even company headquarters, they are immensely personal. Households build altars to welcome back departed spirits of loved ones and celebrate life through acknowledging death.

There is no right or wrong way to create an altar, but here are some thoughts on altar-making to get yours started.

Start with the Why

Always start with the Why. Harnessing the core elements of water, earth, wind, and fire, consider what you’ll include in your altar to welcome back departed loved ones and your intention for the space.


Leave a glass of water and perhaps your loved one’s favorite beverage (coffee, mezcal, hopefully something suitable to be left at room temperature!)


Food—the spirit’s favorite treats during their time on Earth—can represent the land.


Papel picado—colorful, perforated papers—is hung to catch the wind.


A light to guide the spirits home.

And of course, lots of cempasuchil

The scent and color of these rich orange marigolds guide the spirits back home. The flowers are said to represent the Aztec sun god Tonotiuh.

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