How to Make a Day of the Dead Altar a Day Before the Day of the Dead


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How to Make a Day of the Dead Altar a Day Before the Day of the Dead

The basic elements for your fast-tracked Day of the Dead altar. Follow these basic steps.

It's October 31, and not long ago, when that date was just Halloween, there would be little to look forward to the next day except for a candy binge.

In recent years, though, October 31 might as well be called the Eve of Día de los Muertos. And this means that suddenly, you remember you should probably honor your "muertos" for Day of the Dead with a do-it-yourself at-home altar. But how?

In Mexico and in many multiethnic and Mexican communities in the United States, Día de los Muertos is seen as a time to celebrate and honor your departed loved ones. People have merged some of its practices with Halloween and that's even happening in Mexico today, because the two days are so close together.


But at the end of the day, the Days of the Dead, November 1 and 2, will always be a time of reflection on life and death. It's a little more serious than say, dressing up as a jack-o-lantern or a sexy nurse. At the heart of Día de los Muertos is the altar to recall your loved ones. The altar is supposed to conjure your departed, not in a spooky sense, but with an air of honor, respect, and affection. Without an altar, there's really no holiday to speak of.

Hey, not all of us live in a quaint Mexican village high in the mountains of Oaxaca — but we all have at least one Mexican market or bodega to mine when in crises such as these. That's why it's important to make sure you have all the basic elements in line for your fast-tracked Day of the Dead altar, which you can make happen by following these basic steps.

Place your altar in a central location in your home, such as an entryway, your living room, or main hallway. Avoid a closet or a private bedroom. The dead love to see and be seen. Your altar should have at least one or two levels. We chose an old crate and a slab of wood for our impromptu altar this year.

Pan de Muerto: This is “Bread of the Dead.” And thankfully, even gas stations sell it these days. Pan de Muerto is a very old-school pan dulce recipe made especially for Day of the Dead. The bread has a fluffy, eggy flavor, and is coated in sugar on the outside. Dig out your nicest plate, get your 99-cent Pan de Muerto, and place the bread at a central spot on your altar.

Photos of Loved Ones: These, of course, are also essential. It’s best when the photos are frayed, old, and yellowing. But in the modern era, no departed soul would get mad at you if you snag a Facebook photo and print it on colored bond paper.

Sugar Skulls: Decorate liberally. (The chocolate ones are nice because you can eat them right off the altar when the dead aren’t looking.)

Fruit: Seasonal fruits are excellent offerings for an altar. In Mexico City, we use a lot of mandarins, guavas, and sometimes apples or pears. Another helpful energy source for the departed is bowls or piles of cacahuates — peanuts.

Cigarette: Humans shouldn’t smoke, but the dead engage in no risk at all when inhaling a bit of tobacco for a few choice hours, crossing midnight between November 1 and November 2. Set a single cigarette and light it just when you think your departed are closest to their altar.