How to Make an Altar for Day of the Dead: Yucatan, Mexico
Mexico was colonized by Spain more than 500 years ago and many of the traditions upheld by the original original inhabitants of the Yucatan peninsula have disappeared in that time. One tradition however, has not faded and perhaps has gotten more powerful with the passage of time. Hanal Pixan or the Day of the Dead “Dia de Muertos” is a multiple day holiday dedicated to respecting all those who have passed on.
Last year my mother-in-law taught me everything she knows about hanal pixan alter making. I was happy to set up my first alter last year. In the year since then I’ve read, listened and asked more questions learning even more about this celebration. As I gathered my things this year I wanted to share with everyone to make their own.
Many families clean the graves of their family and loved ones as well as create alters for the spirit of the dead to visit. The minimum days to celebrate are from October 31-November 2 and many believe the souls of their family members come to eat and drink with them in their house, and many set up altars before and after those dates (explained at the end of this post). Hanal Pixan in Mayan means, “food for the spirits.” and setting up the complex altar, cleaning graves and honoring those not part of one’s family starts from the 28th of October.
As a note, most all of Mexico celebrate Dia de Muertos but only the Yucatan celebrate Hanal Pixan.
Many of the celebrations throughout Mexico vary and including parades, catrinas, and even giant kite flying.
This post is focusing on the one thing that doesn’t change too much throughout the country is the need to put and altar at home. What you put on the altar is highly personal and can vary by region, but I’ve outlined the most common or most necessary elements, as well as those I personally use.
I have chosen to not picture an altar here out of respect for the tradition.
I firmly believe this alter is for my dead ancestors and not for photography and exposition, other hold their own beliefs and that is totally fine.
Secondly, it is unlikely that this article is a complete or even completely traditional list, but I am doing my best being married into a Yucatecan family, and I will update it if I learn anything else.
If you are interested in honoring your own dead loved ones collect these things for your altar.
Cover a small table or other surface with a white cloth. Your table should be at least big enough to hold flowers, food, water, candles and a picture. However, it shouldn’t be the main table you use for eating or working. It should have it’s own special place of importance and only be used as an alter during the days of October 31-November 2. It is also great if you can stack boxes or smaller tables on top and cover them with white cloth as well. 3 layers or more is what a traditional altar would have with older relatives at the top and closer generations or children who died nearer to the bottom. If you only have 1 tier that is okay the dead are happy for any and all offerings they won’t be picky about how many levels you could built.. But note, if you are going to have a traditional altar and celebrate those outside of your family you may need more space for water and candles, plan accordingly. If you don’t have a white cloth you can use another color, but try to have a large white doily or cloth napkin in the center.
Gather a picture for each person you would like to honor and respect. This can be your grandparents, great parents, brothers, sisters or even friends. Anyone who is important to you and your family but is no longer alive. If you can’t find a picture it’s okay name the person and leave these slips of paper on your altar with their respective offerings. Pictures help the spirits find their own altar faster.
It is said that the flowers are used to attract the spirits attention and show them they way to the food and water you are offering. Here in the Yucatan and other parts of Mexico it is common to use marigolds because they are colorful and have a powerful scent. If you can not get fresh marigolds you can make them from paper or substitute with chrysanthemums. Remember the altar should be warm and cheery pick bright colored flowers or those with a very strong smell.
Don’t forget to give your family member fresh water each day. One glass is enough but if you are able to give one for each ancestor that is even better. Another method is to fill up a large pitcher many spirits would be able to share.
These are used to create a warm and welcoming atmosphere. I imagine most spirits come during the night but at least one candle (if not multiple see note in days below) should be left burning constantly throughout the time your altar is set up.
- Pan de Muerto
If you live in Mexico you’ve seen it being sold everywhere, not only do the dead love pan de muertos so do the living. Make sure by buy a little extra to leave as an offering. If you can not get pan de muerto where you live another white sweet bread will make a good substitute especially if it is familiar to you ancestors.
- Mucbipollo/Pib or Other Food
A large tamal specific to the Yucatan made for Hanal Pixan.
Sometimes I substitute with tamales for my alter but some sort of main course food should be offered to your ancestors. I’ve heard of mole or regular tamales being used. Last year, I got really creative. I didn’t have Pib and put lasagna instead, because it was something I knew my grandparents and great grandparents had all enjoyed. Try to put a food that is labor intensive but fulfilling because this is an offering to show respect and love, as well as fill them up for another year.
- Candy and Hot Chocolate
The hot chocolate is especially important on November 1 when our ancestors who died as children are celebrated. You should also add candy or other treats on this day. If you are feeling extra festive, you can even make your own chocolate to blend into water or milk.
Often in the form of sugar, but sometimes made from clay or wood skulls (or even small skeleton figurines) are an indispensable part of an altar. Some people even put a Catrina who is considered the lady death herself, but that is a more modern and often more Northern Mexican tradition.
- Paper flags
It’s common to add other decorations such as papel picados or the Mexican party flags on or around the altar. Anything you have that brightens up the alter can be used, remember this is a celebration of our ancestors not a time of mourning. It is also said this paper represents the fragility of life, which I think is honest and beautiful.
- Other offerings
This is where you can get inventive. Do you know some things your ancestors enjoyed? Add them to the altar. It’s common to see cigarettes, alcohol, craft or art supplies, toys and other trinkets added to the altar as offerings. Incense or copal is also often used to attract the spirits and to offer up prayers. In many parts of Mexico (although not originally the Yucatan as far as I understand) it is also common to place an offering of small dog statue or figure. It is believed by many that dogs help you cross better into the spirit realm and act as guides.
Remember Hanal Pixan and Dia de Muertos are days of celebration, respect and love. There maybe a little sadness when we remember those who are gone but we should focus on the good memories and the beautiful altar you prepared to fuel them through another year in the spirit world.
Days of Celebration
28th of October – The spirits are starting to arrive from the long journey.
According to some your alter should be ready with white cloth and the first candle should be lit this day
I learned recently you should put a single white flower on this day for all spirits who happen past your house but my mother-in-law didn’t mention this part because her alter starts on October 30th. I know during Hanal Pixan this time is used for grave cleaning and house cleaning so I am not surprised simple altars for spirits outside of your family begin from the 28th.
29th of October – On this day the second candle is lit and the first glass of water is placed.
It is said that this day is for those forgotten or lost souls.
30th of October – The third candle is lit and a third glass of water is placed.
The first piece of Pan de Muerto is left. It is said that this day is for all those who died hungry so they may have some sustenance.
Alternatively, this is the first day of your alter and a single candle and a glass of water and bread are present.
My mother-in-law told me last year we should make sure to have an alter set up by the 30th for those who have died and been forgotten or don’t have an alter elsewhere.
31st of October – All the pictures you would like to add to your alter should be placed by this day as well as the fresh flowers, flags, and other decorations you are using.
Light another candle, leave a glass of water for each family member you have a picture for, plus the water from the previous day(s) and 1 extra water for your great grandparents and great great grandparents and great great great grandparents. You should also add fruit or other food.
1 of November – This is the day that those who died as children will arrive.
Make sure you have some hot chocolate to present. You can also add other sweets and if you have them toys. Freshen up the fruit or other food options this day as well. If any of the water levels have gone down make sure you fill them up again (or ever better, change them for new).
2nd of November – As always, light another candle this day.
Today all those who have died in your family should be with you. It is common to burn incense on this day and bring more new flowers for the alter. All the food and bread should be fresh again as your ancestors are all sure to eat well. As always check the water and make sure it is clean and full.
3rd of November – Light another candle and burn some more incense. This is the day to say goodbye to your ancestors. Thank them for coming and wish them a good journey back to the land of the dead, remember to ask them to come again next year. .
The rest of November – I was taught by my mother in law which it is normal custom now to clean up the altar on the 3d of November it is traditional to leave a basic alter the entire month. This should consist of 1 candle that is always burning, with a glass of water both placed on a white cloth. Therefore in my household, on November 3rd I clean up all of the food offerings, pictures etc. but leave the candles and the first cup of water I placed. When the candles begin to burn out I make sure to leave 1 constantly burning the whole month. On November 30th, I remove this white cloth, candle and water.