How to Build Day of the Dead Altars and the Rituals' History

Updated on September 4, 2019
relache profile image

Raye gardens organically, harvests rainwater, strives to eat locally, and honors the gods from her home in the Pacific Northwest.

Dia de Los Muertos altar display
Dia de Los Muertos altar display | Source

Dia de Los Muertos

The Day of the Dead is an ancient prehispanic tradition honoring the beloved dead and ancestors. This practice has its roots in Mexico, but you can find celebrations of this type all over the world. Ritual altars are built for the dead—some simple, some so elaborate as to fill an entire room. In the Mexican Catholic church, modern Halloween celebrations are discouraged in favor of traditional altar-building. The pagan roots of this holiday are the Aztec festivities presided over by the “Lady of the Dead,” moved from July to autumn to align with “Dia de Todos Santos” in an attempt to Christianize the harvest celebration.

November 1st is the day for “santos inocentes” as dead little children are revered, and adults are honored on November 2nd. The ancient tradition of this holiday was to celebrate children and the dead. This was to be a joyous acknowledgment of the cycle of life, not a morbid occasion. Many variations of this holiday exist as individual regions added their own specific details and ritual offerings. Many neo-pagan groups incorporate Samhain and Day of the Dead celebrations as both relate to ancestors and the fall transition.

How to Build a Day of the Dead Altar

Here is a list of items commonly found as part of Day of the Dead altars. You can make yours as small or as large and elaborate as your time and space permits. The altars are usually three tiers high. A clear path is made from the house entrance to the altar for the spirits to travel by burning incense. A small cross of ash is placed in the path, stepping on it will dispel any guilt carried by the journeying spirits.

What to Include in Your Altar:

  • Photograph(s) of your honored dead
  • Candles. On the top level, four candles are placed to signify the four cardinal directions. The candles provide light to guide the dead on their journey.
  • Tissue paper cutouts called “papel picado” are used to decorate the altar. Purple signifies pain, white is hope and pink is a celebration.
  • Candy skulls - The Holy Trinity is symbolized by a trio of candy skulls put on the second level of the altar. A fourth skull, one larger one, is put at the center of the third level to represent the Giver of Life.
  • A special bread, “pan de muerto,” is placed on the altar as an offering. This is a round sweet bread sprinkled with a white sugar cross on top. Fruit and candy is also offered on the altar, along with any favorite foods of the deceased.
  • So that the returning ghosts can freshen up after their journey, a small bowl of water, a towel and a small bar of soap is put on the altar. Also, there is a pitcher of fresh drinking water and a bottle of their favorite liquor so that they can quench any thirst they might have.
  • The traditional flower cempasuchil, better known as marigolds, is used for decoration and fragrance. The name means “flower with four hundred lives” and is strewn in a path to the altar to guide the ghosts and spirits to their prepared feast.

A Dia de los Muertos altar
A Dia de los Muertos altar | Source

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How to Make Sugar Skulls

Candy sugar skulls, also known as calaveras, are one of the key decorations of a Day of the Dead altar. These skulls symbolize the beloved and honored dead. Make from meringue powder and sugar, they are then decorated with colorful frosting, bits of foil, colored sugars and are often marked with the name of the person they represent.

Toluca, a town in Mexico, is considered the place where the custom of making colorful figures out of sugar first began. The name for this type of craft is "Alfenique" and much more than just sugar skulls are made for Day of the Dead offerings.

These easiest way to make sugar skulls is to use a mold made for this purpose. Be sure to make them on a very dry day as even extra humidity can ruin them and your batch won't turn out properly. If made well and kept very dry, these creations can last for up to a year. As you can imagine, they are not meant to be eaten.

A Basic Recipe for Sugar Skulls:

  • 2 C. powdered sugar
  • 1 egg white
  • 1 Tbsp. corn syrup
  • 1/2 Tsp. vanilla
  • 1/3 C. cornstarch
  • food coloring and frosting assortment
  • 1 small paintbrush

Sift the powdered sugar so that you have no lumps. In a separate bowl, mix the egg white, vanilla and corn syrup..

Then add the powdered sugar with a wooden spoon. When almost all of it had been added, start kneading the mix gently with your fingertips to form a ball of dough.

Lay out a mat or cutting board and dust it with the cornstarch (this keeps the dough from sticking).

Knead the sugar dough until it is smooth.

Put your dough into a plastic bag and chill in the refrigerator. Press into molds to shape or model with dough freehand. Put on wax paper and leave to dry in a moisture-free space.

When the figures and skulls are dry, you can paint and decorate them with food coloring, colored frosting, sprinkles and more.

Sugar Skull Recipe Video

Day of the Dead Celebration (& comments)

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    • Carole Anzolletti profile image

      Carole Anzolletti 

      8 years ago from Connecticut, USA

      EXCELLENT! Adding this to my bookmarks as I create and illustrate for this awesome day all month! VOTING YOU UP!!!

    • Smireles profile image

      Sandra Mireles 

      10 years ago from Texas

      Wonderful hub about Day of the Dead observances. I have a very good Creole friend from Louisiana who is also Catholic and every year celebrates All Saints Day, November 1, with her family. They visit the graves and go to church. Thank you for giving us a look at how the celebration is in Mexico and other parts of the world.

    • Veronica profile image


      11 years ago from NY

      Nice Hub, Relache! I've never tried to make my own sugar skulls. I can't wait to try it. I have a Day of the Dead tattoo, finished just in time for last weekend's festivities. (pics of it are on my blog if you want to see.)

      I'm glad your hub states the difference between Nov 1 and 2, and stresses that although macab, this isn't morbid at all, it's a recognition and celebration life. I love it!

    • MARYELLE profile image


      11 years ago from East sussex

      All I can say is WOW what a wonderful Hub, Thank you Relache xxxxxxxxx


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