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How-Tuesday: Beginners’ Guide to Building an Altar

Oct 28, 2014

by Yreina Flores Ortiz

Etsy.com handmade and vintage goods
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Yreina Flores Ortiz is the papel picado artist behind Ay Mujer!. When she’s not favoriting everything on Instagram, she’s cutting some of the 50,000-plus feet of banners her business produces every year.

Día de Los Muertos (or “Day of the Dead”) is a sacred Mexican celebration with a history that stretches back to Mexico’s indigenous roots. During this holiday, it is believed that the spirits of the dead can return to be among the living. This ancient cultural acceptance of death has brought about many beautiful and playful depictions of the dead – from decorative sugar skulls and dancing skeletons to handpainted paper maché figurines and more – but they aren’t just decorations, and they are not to be confused with Halloween. Instead, they make up the elements of an altar: a destination for our beloved departed to visit on Day of the Dead, which starts November 1 at midnight.

Whether or not you believe in the spirits of the dead coming to visit, making a home altar is a wonderful opportunity to gather with loved ones to share old stories, reflect, listen to music, and connect with the past. While there are many approaches to building an altar (in Mexico, traditions vary by region), there is truly no wrong way to make one, as long as you make it with love. The more personal and meaningful your altar, the more authentic it becomes.

For those unfamiliar with this ritual, I’ll walk you through the process. Let’s get started!

Step 1: Choose a Place For the Altar

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Ideally, you’ll position the altar in a central spot, like a living room or kitchen. Make sure the place you choose has room for photos, flowers, candles and other objects. A small table, bookshelf or mantel is great, but it’s really about using what you have – a nice tablecloth or swatch of fabric can transform an altar base made from buckets, cardboard boxes or furniture. If the only space you have for your altar is the ground, then spread out a pretty blanket and get to work.

Step 2: Gather Photos and Personal Relics

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I love this part of the process! Each year as fall comes around (and sometimes even before then), I think about who I want to learn more about, and who I still need pictures of. This year, my nino (godfather), who passed away 14 years ago, has been in the forefront of my mind. Recently, I sat down with my parents and went through photo albums to find more pictures of him. With every found image came a story I hadn’t heard before; it was very therapeutic and healing for all of us.

Step 3: Collect Some Symbolic Offerings

Of course, you can add any item to your altar that you want. Some traditional offerings on Day of the Dead altars include: bright and festive marigolds, which are believed to “shine a light” so the dead know where to go; lit candles and fire, which represent the souls themselves; water (in an open container) to quench thirst from the long journey; fruit; salt, sage, and copal, which is believed to purify the spirits; papel picado, or cut-paper decorations (make your own here) that represent wind. Other common items are Pan de muerto or bread of the dead, which is a sweet bread that provides sustenance, and handpainted sugar skulls or homemade food (prepared using an old family recipe). While planning the altar for my nino this year, I learned that he won a menudo cook-off back in the day, so I’ll also be putting a bowl of menudo on my altar for him!

Step 4: Arrange Your Altar

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Composition-wise, there are no rules. I like to keep mine symmetrically balanced — but that’s just a personal thing. Be sure to take your time setting out all the items you’ve collected, savoring the ritual of remembrance. Also: you can never have too many flowers — and they don’t have to be marigolds. (I use a lot of roses because they were my grandma’s favorite.) If you have picture frames for your photos, great; if you just have snapshots grabbed out of an old photo album, that’s fine, too.

One of the best parts of building an altar is sharing the photos and relics with family. For me, I especially love including my daughter, who may not have met the people we are honoring. I have her participate so she can learn the faces of her ancestors. I will hold up a photo and ask “Who is this?”

“Great grandpa Lencho,” she’ll say, even though he passed when she was just a baby.

 Browse Dia de Los Muertos on Etsy

Photos by Yreina Flores Ortiz.

2 Featured Comments

  • StrangelyEverAfter

    Corrie Curry from StrangelyEverAfter said 2 years ago Featured

    What a beautiful and meaningful way to remember those close to you who have passed on. This past year I've been thinking a lot about my maternal grandmother who died from leukemia a couple of months before I was born. Hearing stories about her and cooking recipes from the cook book she wrote has helped me in a way get to know her. May everybody have a joyful Day of the Dead this year as they remember family, friends, and loved ones!

  • mazedasastoat

    mazedasastoat from mazedasastoat said 2 years ago Featured

    I'll be celebrating Samhain around this time, but it's interesting to learn about other celebrations around the world. Interesting also that so many autumn festivals honour the dead, just as so many mid-winter ones celebrate the returning of the light/sun. Samhain Blessings to all, whatever you call it where you live!

67 comments

  • WoodsyWools

    ACR from WoodsyWools said 2 years ago

    Interesting ideas here !!

  • SouvenirAndSalvage

    Mary Jo and Rachael from SouvenirAndSalvage said 2 years ago

    Wonderful article! I myself (Rachael) have built alters many times before to celebrate passed on family and friends, and also to explore themes through art. Very lovely to see your personal process and traditions displayed so beautifully.

  • Circa810

    Thom Aten from Circa810 said 2 years ago

    very interesting and some great items featured. . Thanks for sharing

  • HansHolzkopf

    Natalie from HansHolzkopf said 2 years ago

    great ideas!

  • mattyhandmadecrafts

    Matejka Max from NattyMatty said 2 years ago

    Very Vivid!

  • MegansMenagerie

    Megan from MegansMenagerie said 2 years ago

    Wonderful ideas!

  • Spiralspiral

    SpiralSpiral from Spiralspiral said 2 years ago

    Beautiful!

  • martin1206

    Martin Lam from martin1206 said 2 years ago

    Nice idea!

  • BlueSeaPaintShop

    ACR from IntoTheBluePaintShop said 2 years ago

    Very nice ...

  • TheLovelyParadox

    Terri Haselwood from TheLovelyParadox said 2 years ago

    It is beautifully decorated. Love the ideas.

  • robertagianfarelli

    Roberta Gianfarelli from SparaFuori said 2 years ago

    So great idea :-)

  • agebo

    Ann Cosgrove from acbcDesign said 2 years ago

    beautiful!

  • LivingVintage

    LivingVintage from LivingVintage said 2 years ago

    Lovely tradition!

  • taylor2178 Admin

    Taylor Combs from PomandCircumstance said 2 years ago

    Loved learning more about this tradition. Thanks for sharing, Yreina.

  • Laladesignstudio

    Lala Jewelry from Laladesignstudio said 2 years ago

    What a beautiful way to honor your family that has passed on.

  • Goodmoodwoods

    Kristina from GoodMoodWoods said 2 years ago

    Nice ideas! Very interesting.

  • allthingsgranny

    Angela Curtis from AandBDesignStudio said 2 years ago

    beautiful ! thanks !

  • dessertfirstdesigns

    Miranda from dessertfirstdesigns said 2 years ago

    I love these!

  • rockriverstitches

    Tammy Franck from rockriverstitches said 2 years ago

    Just learned something new today! THanks for the great article!

  • MelindaArt

    Melinda from SeaArtbyMelinda said 2 years ago

    Wonderful ideas :) beautiful altar and tradition

  • plantphil

    Phil and Linda De Groot from WhiteWingWoodcraft said 2 years ago

    Interesting traditional and very informative. Families are the heart and soul of who we are and where we come from! God"s Blessings to you and your"s as you celebrate your beloved one!

  • plantphil

    Phil and Linda De Groot from WhiteWingWoodcraft said 2 years ago

    Interesting traditional and very informative. Families are the heart and soul of who we are and where we come from! God"s Blessings to you and your"s as you celebrate your beloved one! A few moments ago

  • StrangelyEverAfter

    Corrie Curry from StrangelyEverAfter said 2 years ago Featured

    What a beautiful and meaningful way to remember those close to you who have passed on. This past year I've been thinking a lot about my maternal grandmother who died from leukemia a couple of months before I was born. Hearing stories about her and cooking recipes from the cook book she wrote has helped me in a way get to know her. May everybody have a joyful Day of the Dead this year as they remember family, friends, and loved ones!

  • TreasuredMemoryLane

    TreasuredMemoryLane from TreasuredMemoryLane said 2 years ago

    Wonderful ideas! Very interesting article.

  • mazedasastoat

    mazedasastoat from mazedasastoat said 2 years ago Featured

    I'll be celebrating Samhain around this time, but it's interesting to learn about other celebrations around the world. Interesting also that so many autumn festivals honour the dead, just as so many mid-winter ones celebrate the returning of the light/sun. Samhain Blessings to all, whatever you call it where you live!

  • mymercado

    Diana Maldonado from MyMercado said 2 years ago

    Great article. I love sharing the meaning of Day of the Dead/Dia de los Muertos with others. :)

  • PrishaJewels

    PrishaJewels from PrishaJewels said 2 years ago

    Just Fantastic .

  • felt4soul

    Nadia Morgan from Felt4Soul said 2 years ago

    Beautiful and interesting.

  • Nikifashion

    Natalia from Nikifashion said 2 years ago

    Supper article!

  • MrsGingerandWasabi

    Marta DQ from tribomo said 2 years ago

    Great post! I loved when you said: 'there is truly no wrong way to make one, as long as you make it with love' :)

  • theblackwitch10

    Arianna - Intrecci di Fili - from IntreccidiFili said 2 years ago

    A wonderful way to honor the dead! Thanks!!!

  • JewelMeShop

    Georgia from JewelMeShop said 2 years ago

    Interesting article. Thanks for sharing!

  • kitkateden

    kitkateden from Kitkateden said 2 years ago

    I love these ideas!

  • ArtisanSoapInVegas

    Cristy Ramos from ArtisanBathandBody said 2 years ago

    Every Day of the Death, we build an altar in our living room too! It is a very meaningful way to remember our loved ones who have passed away. We usually add sugar skulls, which we make ourselves. That is a very traditional way to gift both the living and the death. Thank you so much for sharing, Yreina!

  • pjparmar45

    Pooja Parmar from ExoticKraft said 2 years ago

    Thank you for sharing such a nice idea!

  • aymujer

    Yreina Flores Ortiz from AyMujer said 2 years ago

    Thanks for reading, everybody! I'm so happy for the opportunity to share with, and to be a part of this wonderful community.

  • mariashacreaw

    Maria Shacreaw from StarlightBags said 2 years ago

    This is lovely! So warm, creative and inspirational.

  • USEBLUE

    SIBELLA from UNIQUENEWLINE said 2 years ago

    every picture is SO BEAUTIFUL SO COLORFULL , you made my day just looking to these pictures. THANK YOU

  • HeyChica

    Hey Chica from HeyChica said 2 years ago

    Thanks for sharing the meaning behind this holiday. I participated in an art exhibit for day of the dead here some years ago and used a monoprint of my mother that I made. You've inspired me to create an alter this year and I just happen to have a lot of marigolds still growing in my garden!

  • Kashuen

    Kashuen Collectibles from Kashuen said 2 years ago

    Great ideas. Thank you for sharing.

  • rarms26

    Iron Eater from Miniversal said 2 years ago

    El dia de los muertos can be a godsend for an Etsy seller in the niche ;)

  • isewcute

    June from isewcute said 2 years ago

    I enjoy reading about different cultures and traditions. This was very interesting!

  • studioLISE

    studioLISE from studioLISE said 2 years ago

    I think this is a beautiful tradition! How inspiring to know that all your loved ones, present and past, are always remembered and honored! Thank you for sharing : )

  • MyChouchou

    MyChouchou from MyChouChou said 2 years ago

    So inspiring! It's a beautiful thing to celebrate loved ones and to connect with the past. Thank you : )

  • nan20092

    Nan Bennett from LeBuaJewelry said 2 years ago

    Very interested post. It similar Thai tradition. My dad and my Mom passed away (so soon 68 and 59) about 6 and 5 years ago. I always have they photos and have place for them I bring them food and coffee everyday. even now(last year) moved to live in USA. our house in USA. have place(shelf) too. yesterday my dad birthday I made cupcake for him. My husband (American) he accepted and my kids (never see my parent) happy to see and listen about my parent.

  • korenkwan

    Koren Kwan from GarasuWonderland said 2 years ago

    Very nice~

  • muchandquick

    Kalisa L. from MuchandQuick said 2 years ago

    It is nice to see the blend of artistic expression with respect for the holiday. Here in Northern AL, we have an annual Day of the Dead celebration at Lowe Mill, a historic mill turned artist studio & exhibition space. They offer a perfect blend of artists' expression of the holiday through their crafts while also building proper altars and inviting the public to honors those that have passed with offerings and reflection.

  • anitag2

    anitag2 said 2 years ago

    Really Nice!

  • gilstrapdesigns

    Debra Gilstrap from gilstrapdesigns said 2 years ago

    I think that this is a great tradition I've been thinking about doing something like this forin honor of my son Brandon he passed in 2009 and keeping up the altar all of the time.

  • nene6969

    Marcia Clark from SilverandGoldDreams said 2 years ago

    I loved the article. It is nice to know the detailed meaning for the holiday and what the components are for the altar.

  • jizbasusan

    Susan Jizba from TheWeaverOfWords said 2 years ago

    such a beautiful post. I think its such a wonderful holiday have to celebrate those who have passed on to the spirit world. I also really love the idea of having an altar at all times. I think of it as a sacred place, a sanctuary, a place to reconnect with our spiritual selves. Since our culture is so materialistic and focused on the outer life, I think its especially important to stop and go inside ourselves and find that holy place within. An altar can help remind us to do that.

  • juliemonyak

    JULIE from starflowercottage said 2 years ago

    Lovely rememberance of our dearly departed. I believe the practice of the Day of the Dead is a mixture of the Aztec and Catholic Feast of the Holy Souls. The Catholic faith honors our loved ones who have passed and are still in preparation to see God by purifying their love for Him . My mom just passed in Sept. and we have her picture and a votive candle lit as a sign of prayer and rememberance. I love what Susan (WeaverOfWords) posted ....so true !!

  • DesertDakini

    Tara from SacredLandSage said 2 years ago

    Thank you Yreina! I enjoy your posts every year at this time. Thank you for telling us all about the symbols of this ancient celebration. We also celebrate every year in our family and community; building altars, crafting masks, cookies, breads, and making jewelry. One added symbol to an altar for us is La Monarcha- the Monarch butterfly, who old legends say help to carry the souls of loved ones back home to us to celebrate. I like how you say "the art of remembrance"~ decorating and displaying momentos of loved ones. It is beautiful how you involve your daughter in decorations and keeping memories and stories alive. Lovely. I will be posting this to my blog with a link to your store. Thank you!!

  • TideTogether

    Teri Bildstein from TideTogether said 2 years ago

    I am so glad this post was featured. I love all the symbolism from Día de Muertos and appreciate the simplistic breakdown you have provided. :-)

  • edieandglo

    kelly hickey from edieandglo said 2 years ago

    I too have such deep feelings for this holiday and keeping an alter everyday of the year. Being a part-time yoga instructor for children I also introduce the idea of alters to honor deceased family, friends and pets to teach kids that love and relationships go beyond this life and are truly worth honoring continuously. Thank you for posting!

  • Indounik

    Indounik from Indounik said 2 years ago

    Warm greetings from Bali where every family compound has a temple devoted to the ancestors. Love the vibrancy and celebratory nature of your alter. Thanks for the great insight into this aspect of Mexican culture. I love that it's such a small world on Etsy.

  • paoladbrown

    PAOLA BROWN from PaolaBrownShop said 2 years ago

    Me encanto este articulo, me encanta que se sigan celebrando las tradiciones mexicanas y que ellas provean pa mostrar la creatividad de tu tienda en linea. Excelente trabajo !! gracias!

  • AGORAA

    AGORAA from AGORAA said 2 years ago

    Awesome ideas! Great shops! thank you for sharing!

  • carmelataglialavore2

    Carmela from CarmelasCoastalCraft said 2 years ago

    This is a sweet way to honor our loved ones who have passed over. I think this tradition of building an altar can be a great comfort for the living. In my heart and soul I truly believe our loved ones who passed over are as close as our thoughts of them.

  • ssimms64

    susan simms from CraftySewingSue said 2 years ago

    That is a beautiful way to remember your loved ones, i really like this.

  • leilalou

    Lesley from leilalou said 2 years ago

    Great article and a beautiful way to remember those who have passed. I spent the afternoon tidying up an ancient cemetery behind our house with my daughter. We uncovered tomb stones hidden by foliage and took rubbings to discover the names and dates of the stones you could no longer read. Finally we planted winter pansies at the unattended graves. The tradition here is France is to lay Crysanthemums on "All Sains day". I hope to instill a healthy knowledge of life and death in my daughter and of course do not want her to be afraid of the cemetery we live beside!

  • dominna

    Katrina Dzerkale from Dominna said 2 years ago

    Such an amazing idea for this time of year.

  • ASHYL

    Kerime Sevilen Mustafaoglu from ASHYL said 2 years ago

    Interesting ideas!

  • 1buddie2000

    Vintage Love from 1buddie2000 said 2 years ago

    Funny how this is really catching on in the US. I think we must need this in this day and time. Our family is bringing back this old tradition honoring our Mexican heritage. The best part is the face-painting on Dia De Los Muertos - So much fun! But the underlying seriousness of it is what we can't loose. Honoring our ancestors is remembering where you came from.

  • korenkwan

    Koren Kwan from GarasuWonderland said 2 years ago

    Great ideas indeed!

  • BagsnBrags

    BagsnBrags from BagsnBrags said 2 years ago

    Lovely and beautiful!

  • ljkrausen

    Linda Krausen said 1 year ago

    thank you. It was always such a mystery when my friends explained it. Your explanation makes sense because I kind of do that when I visit the grave of my parents, although not so elaborate. This year I would like to remember friends and family, and my wonderful pets, all of whose spirits seem to have come back from time to time. thank you, Yreina

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