What you need to make your own traditional Mexican Day of the Dead Altar

In Mexico, November 1 and 2 have become days of party and celebration. It is believed that during these dates, the dead have permission to enjoy and spend time with their loved ones. They cross the Mictlan and arrive with the mortals to share food and drinks, and receive two days of tributes. They call it Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead in English.

The offering, also known as the altar, is one of the main elements of this celebration. With the favorite meals, snacks, and beverages of the deceased, the living pays respect and venerates the one who has left. As part of the beliefs of the Mexicans, it is common to hear that after those days the food that was placed in it loses its flavor and smell because the visitors have consumed it.

On many occasions, the offerings or altars for the dead are placed in the home of relatives or friends of the deceased, and on others, they are arranged in the tomb of the deceased. “There was no shortage of water, pan de muerto, chocolate, fruit, resins, turkey mole, fermented drinks, black paper roses, and of course, a lot of cempazuchil, to end up giving free rein to the feast, to drink” according to the 19th-century journalist, Ángel del Campo Valle, better known as Micrós.

In addition, depending on the relative to whom it is addressed, specific dishes are designated that were to the favorites of the deceased. It is also common to see chocolate and sugar skulls, salt, chopped paper, incense, fruit, clay dogs, and photographs of relatives or friends to whom the offering has been placed. In many homes, they have crosses or some image of saints “so that the devil does not touch their things” according to the testimony of Rosalba Mendoza, a resident of La Santísima in Xochimilco, collected by the National Institute of Indigenous Peoples (INPI). It is also customary to place toys and sweets on the altars waiting to receive a child who has passed.

Read the official PVDN guide to Day of the Dead in Puerto Vallarta

The origin of the Day of the Dead Altar

Since pre-Hispanic times there were offering rituals for crops and ancestors. The Nahuas considered sowing in the same way that they did death: a constant cycle that could not exist without the other. The fruits had to be harvested in order to sow again; however, the harvest months were feared that crops would die as the time of transition between drought and abundance. As a tribute to continue the cycle, sacrifices and offerings were made in order to share the fruits with the ancestors. Among the main elements that the offerings had, cocoa, money, wax, birds, seeds, and fruits.

As part of this union between harvest and death, the indigenous people had two dates in which they venerated both. According to Fray Diego Durán, their names were Miccailhuitontli or Fiesta de los muertecitos and Fiesta grande de los muertos. The first took place in the ninth Nahua month (equivalent to the month of August in the Gregorian calendar) and the second took place in the tenth month. The Fiesta de los Muertecitos still takes place in the Magdalena Contreras city hall on November 1. On the Acoconetla mountain offerings are left with pots and jugs with milk, atole, chocolate, and sweet bread.

To this was added that during the conquest, the traditions of All Saints and Faithful Departed arrived in America. These days in which the Maccabees were commemorated and later focused on offering prayers for forgiveness, also had a ritual in which relics, remains, and treasures were exhibited in churches and convents.

According to the sociologist and anthropologist José Eric Mendoza Luján, during the conquest, the locals changed their dates to appear to celebrate Christian traditions. “According to the Catholic calendar, November 1 is dedicated to All Saints and November 1 to the Faithful Departed. However, in the popular tradition of a large part of the Mexican Republic, day 1 is dedicated to deceased children, and day 2 for adults.

When is the offering placed?

According to the compilation of the National Institute of Indigenous Peoples entitled The festival of the dead in Xochimilco, the offering or the altar of the dead must be placed according to the day that the deceased are remembered. “If it is for someone who died in an accident, they are placed on October 28. To children on October 31 and to adults on November 1”.

In some regions, the offering is placed in the morning but it is more common for it to be ready at eight at night, before the Calaverita is distributed to the children who go out to ask for sweets or money on the night of November 1. It is believed that at this time the deceased arrive. In many homes, after the offering is placed and during these days, the doors of the house are not closed.

Elements of the Day of the Dead offering

Cempasuchil (marigold flowers)

The cempasúchil flower is used because in pre-Hispanic times it was believed that its smell attracted the dead, according to Andrea Rodríguez, a researcher at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) and a specialist in the study of pre-Hispanic gardens in an interview for the BBC.

Many residents place paths of defoliated flowers so that the deceased can find the route.


According to the INPI, the water is available with the intention of quenching thirst after the spirit’s journey. It also symbolizes the purity of the soul and the light on the path.

Incense or incense

It is placed to purify the place designated for the offering.


With the intention that the souls are not corrupted, the salt has the role of purifying the dead.

Candles or waxes

The flame is the guide that allows the souls to return to their homes. They mean the light that gives hope. On many occasions a candle is placed for the deceased, other people have the custom of accommodating four waxes representing the four cardinal points and if the deceased has just died, they usually use purple candlesticks as a sign of mourning.

Xoloitzcuintle puppy

It is used to represent the task that dogs had in the Nahua cosmogony. When dying, the Nahuas faced Itzcuintlán, the first of the nine strata of the underworld. This site was full of xoloitzcuintles dogs that could help humans cross a wide river called Apanohuacalhuia. Only if the human was worthy, the dog helped him. Otherwise, the soul would wander for posterity.

Pan de Muertos

It is thought of as “the body of Christ” but also as a representation of the deceased. The pan de muertos (bread of the dead) vary depending on the region where it is made. In central Mexico, it is distinguished by having little balls of bread that symbolize the bones and skull of the dead.

Sugar skulls

According to information from the INPI, the “small skulls are dedicated to the Holy Trinity, while the large ones are destined for the eternal father.”

Is there an order to place offerings on the altar?

“You start from left to right and the sequence is: first the fruits, then the bread, then the candles or waxes, the food and the copal. The flowers are arranged beforehand in large vases. An offering is added for the soul alone, another for the soul in purgatory, and finally another “for the forgotten souls that no one remembers anymore”, “according to the research carried out by the anthropologist Isabel Lagarriga Attias in the town of La Candelaria in Coyoacán, Mexico City.

When should the offering be removed?

According to the belief, once the deceased are gone, the living can enjoy the fruits and food. On November 3, the offering is removed and the food or sweets are distributed among neighbors and relatives.

In the end, your altar can be anything you wish that best represents the person you are honoring. Instead of looking at Halloween as the gory holiday that promotes fear of death, celebrate Día de los Muertos and honor the dead and the memories of those who have passed in a positive way. Isn’t that how we all want to be remembered?

Trending News on PVDN

  • <strong>Popocatépetl Volcano Exhibits Increased Activity; Yellow Phase 3 Alert Continues</strong>Popocatépetl Volcano Exhibits Increased Activity; Yellow Phase 3 Alert Continues PUERTO VALLARTA (PVDN) - In the past 24 hours, heightened activity was recorded from Mexico's Popocatépetl volcano, with an alarming 315 exhalations detected, accompanied by water vapor, other volcanic gases, and ash, according to the Scientific Advisory Committee (CCA) of the National Civil Protection System (SINAPROC). Monitoring systems in place around the active stratovolcano also…
  • 'Kingdoms of Mexico' Distinction Launches to Boost Tourist Destinations With European Influences‘Kingdoms of Mexico’ Distinction Launches to Boost Tourist Destinations With European Influences Puerto Vallarta (PVDN) - Miguel Torruco Marqués, the head of the Ministry of Tourism (Sectur), introduced the new 'Kingdoms of Mexico' distinction, a major initiative designed to enhance the appeal of Mexico's tourist communities on an international level. The announcement came during a presentation attended by the governors of Tlaxcala, Lorena Cuéllar Cisneros; Baja California,…
  • Puerto Vallarta Set to Celebrate 105th Anniversary as Municipality and 55th as a City with Grand FestivitiesPuerto Vallarta Set to Celebrate 105th Anniversary as Municipality and 55th as a City with Grand Festivities PUERTO VALLARTA - The coastal paradise of Puerto Vallarta is poised to celebrate two landmark anniversaries: the 105th anniversary of its recognition as a municipality and the 55th anniversary of its elevation to city status, with a grand commemoration on May 31, 2023. The celebrations have been meticulously planned by the municipal government led by…
  • Popocatépetl Volcano Resumes Activity; Authorities Maintain Alert StatusPopocatépetl Volcano Resumes Activity; Authorities Maintain Alert Status PUERTO VALLARTA (PVDN) - After a period of relative calm last week, Mexico's Popocatépetl volcano resumed minor activity on Friday night and through Saturday night, as reported by the National Civil Protection Coordination (CNPC). This comes following significant explosions last weekend that put nearby communities on high alert. The resumed activity was characterized by minor…
  • Two More Puerto Vallarta Beaches Are Awarded Blue FlagsTwo More Puerto Vallarta Beaches Are Awarded Blue Flags Puerto Vallarta (PVDN) - In the upcoming 2023-2024 season, Puerto Vallarta is set to host six beaches awarded with the Blue Flag accreditation, an esteemed international recognition for high environmental and quality standards. The Blue Flag committee has reconfirmed the status for four previously certified beaches while conferring this prestigious title to two new beaches…
  • LGBTIQ+ Community Member Disappears At Puerto Vallarta PrideLGBTIQ+ Community Member Disappears At Puerto Vallarta Pride PUERTO VALLARTA - A member of the local LGBTIQ+ community has gone missing under mysterious circumstances, inciting deep concern within the community and calls for immediate action from local authorities. Rubén Michel Castro Guizar, 32, a deaf individual, was last seen on the night of Thursday, May 25th, attending the Vallarta Pride march. His disappearance…
  • SEAPAL Vallarta Launches New Vallarta II Tank to Reinforce Drinking Water SupplySEAPAL Vallarta Launches New Vallarta II Tank to Reinforce Drinking Water Supply PUERTO VALLARTA (PVDN) - SEAPAL Vallarta, the local water management authority, announced the successful integration and activation of the new Vallarta II Tank to its drinking water distribution system on Tuesday, May 30. This strategic addition is expected to enhance the availability of water in Vallarta homes, a pressing issue in the wake of the…
  • Trans Fats Ban in Mexico Will Prohibit the Sale of Cookies, Chips, Pizzas, and More in SeptemberTrans Fats Ban in Mexico Will Prohibit the Sale of Cookies, Chips, Pizzas, and More in September Puerto Vallarta (PVDN) - The Chamber of Deputies in Mexico has taken a critical step in the battle against heart disease, approving a decree that reforms the General Health Law to restrict the use of trans fats and oils. The move is predicted to save more than 13,000 lives per year, with these substances currently…
  • Shocking Case of Animal Abuse in Mexico: Man Throws Dog into Boiling Fry OilShocking Case of Animal Abuse in Mexico: Man Throws Dog into Boiling Fry Oil PUERTO VALLARTA (PVDN) - A disturbing incident of animal abuse has sent shockwaves throughout Mexico, as a man allegedly threw a dog into a pot of boiling oil, resulting in the animal's tragic death. Authorities have detained the suspect for the assault on the dog and have issued an additional arrest warrant on charges of…
  • Mothers Searching For Their Missing Children Uncover Presumed Clandesant Grave in Puerto VallartaMothers Searching For Their Missing Children Uncover Presumed Clandesant Grave in Puerto Vallarta PUERTO VALLARTA (PVDN) - A team of mothers seeking their missing children made a chilling discovery on the outskirts of Puerto Vallarta Saturday afternoon: a skeleton, fragments of bones, and several indications pointing towards a potential site of illegal body disposal. The area of discovery, located near the road to Viejo el Veladero, close to…

Compare Listings

Title Price Status Type Area Purpose Bedrooms Bathrooms