Ofrendas are an essential part of the Day of the Dead celebrations. The word ofrenda means offering in Spanish. They are also called altares or altars, but they are not for worship.
Some people mistakenly think that Mexicans that set up Day of the Dead ofrendas for their defunct relatives are actually worshiping them. Wrong! Nothing further from the truth. The vast majority of Mexicans are Christian Catholics, so they only worship God.
Ofrendas are lovingly set up to remember and honor the memory of their ancestors. Before starting to set their altar, they deep clean their house. Why? Because they are going to have very important “visitors”.
What are the most important elements of an Ofrenda?
The ofrenda is set on a table, covered with a fine tablecloth, preferably white. Then the papel picado, cut tissue paper, is set over the cloth.
Many ofrendas have several decorated levels, created by placing smaller tables on top of the other. Generally, at the top level, the images of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary and Saints are placed.
For each deceased relative, a candle is set. The light of the candles is believed to guide them on their way back home.
The light of the candles also called ceras -waxes- symbolizes Jesus Christ Reborn and our faith.
Colorful flowers, specially Cempasuchitl, adorn the ofrenda.
Flowers symbolize the temporality of life.
Salt and water are also very important; they are used so the souls are not thirsty after their long way back. Water also purifies and cleanses the souls.
Incense, Copal, is burned and believd to elevate prayers to God and also to guide the souls.
Pictures of the relatives that have passed on, are placed on the ofrenda, as well as some of their favorite clothing, perhaps a hat or a shawl. For the children, they place small toys and sweet drinks.
Food is specially prepared for the feast of the souls. Their favorite dishes are cooked for them and placed on the altar: mole, tamales, fruits, arroz rojo -red rice-, hot chocolate and dried fruit. Some times cigarettes or liquor if the dead relative enjoyed them when alive. And of course Pan de Muerto.
It is important to mention that they will not eat the food, they only enjoy the aroma.
Sometimes a cross is made with petals of the cempasuchitl flower. Also with the petals, paths are set to guide the souls to the ofrenda.
Sugar skulls and clacas -skeletons are also included.
In many towns, there are contests of ofrendas. Judges go house by house and elect the three most beautiful altars. Ofrendas are works of art, ephemeral art that is!