Altars: Re-imagining tradition at Día de los Muertos

It’s a tradition that grew out of the Mexican myth of Michoacan’s patron saint, Guanajuato, and the treatment of death as a mark of justice, not just an end to life. We take a…

Altars: Re-imagining tradition at Día de los Muertos

It’s a tradition that grew out of the Mexican myth of Michoacan’s patron saint, Guanajuato, and the treatment of death as a mark of justice, not just an end to life. We take a look at some ways the festival is celebrated — and find out if there are other such festivals around the world.

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Varied recipes

Celebrating the social obligation of holding altars at home, altars vary from traditional to modern. There are many ways in which these are built, but essentially it’s a beautiful sight to see countless colourful, sweet and interesting items embellished with flowers in inlaid ceramic plates or ceramic, tin and wood box.

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Different styles

Mandrake altars are traditionally built with repurposed objects and plaques. Also known as Yucatec altars, these are generally made with heavy vases, pots, or placemats and linked with a large wooden cross, which is held up by pulleys. This traditional design varies somewhat from other altars, such as sombreros in their tin box.

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Perhaps most recognisable is the Aztec altar, made with mason jars and decorated with a picture of the user. This builds a psychological barrier between the dead and the living.

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Craftsmen and landscape artists also create the cróchia de los muertos (Cemetery of the Dead altars), a set of crosses in the shape of a skull and surrounded by niches and plants.

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Outdoor altars

It is not just home altars that celebrate Día de los Muertos, but also traditional outdoor ones in public places such as parks.

Traditional altars

Throughout the week and into the night, celebrants gather in community centres, churches, parks, bus stops, parking lots and abandoned buildings to use the decorations and icons to announce the end of the dead on the earth, and the new beginning on the other side.

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Expressions of their feelings

As well as containing symbols of the dead and invited guests, each side may use colourful table decorations to express the emotions they have around the deceased and new life.

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Rules of etiquette

Recognising the mourning period, the highlight of which is the celebration and the crucifixion of the dead, celebrations are structured and respectful. However, it is important not to disrespect the dead and it is suggested to go only if invited.

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Traditional crosses

The crossing of two parallel crosses, which represents the migration from the world of the living to the world of the dead, is the most elaborate and commonly used altars. Their redness means they mark the journey and sadness of death.

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Tripod altars

The pre-Columbian tripod is used in plaques or plates decorated with a vibrant image of the dead, and mainly made of wood and paste. A tripod panorama is usually a hands-on contraption of sugar, nuts, corn and medicinal herbs to support your case.

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A variation of the tripod altars

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The tripod altars (including sombreros) are less ornate but can take longer and require more materials. They’re made of metal and are used to welcome the dead and the coming of their new life.

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A break from tradition

The traditional home altars are relatively small and local, but can be or transformed into cross markers during weekdays and the two days of the Día de los Muertos when people go out to visit the graves of their loved ones.

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