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Making your first Day of the Dead "Altar"

Day of the Dead in the U.S.

Dia de Muertos has exploded in popularity in Chicago and across the U.S. in recent years. Besides being a beautiful tradition, we think it's is a very healthy way to celebrate life, process death and grief, and remember our loved ones. We love to see families of all backgrounds joining in!

Day of the Dead altar Colores

Building the altar, or offering, is an essential part of the holiday, which occurs in Mexico from October 31 through November 2.

We understand that making your first altar can seem daunting. It's a process full of tradition, and many American families worry they won't get it right.

But fear not! There is no wrong way to build your altar. In Mexico, each community, region and indigenous group makes their offering differently, and all are beautiful. The same is true here. Below we have just a few tips to guide you as you build your first altar.

Altar Day of the Dead

 The altar has levels

Traditionally altars had 7 levels, representing the 7 worlds the soul must travel through to reach its resting place. Today, many families use fewer levels, three or four, often constructed on a table top using boxes, crates or books.

Once you have a table or a space on the floor cleared off, and your levels established, cover the entire altar with a table cloth. Then, it's time to decorate!

Papel Picado

Papel picado

Hang papel picado, the Mexican cut paper hanging decoration, above and around the altar. Traditionally, the papel picado blowing in the breeze symbolizes the transience of life. It will all blow away one day.

Need papel picado? Find ours, handmade by artisans in Puebla, Mx., here!

Marigolds / Cempasúchil

To the papel picado, we add marigold flowers, also known as cempasuchil. Place half of your flowers on the altar. With the other half, remove the petals from the flowers. Sprinkle the petals in front of the altar to make a trail of petals towards a window or door. The dead must travel down this trail to reach the altar, where they will enjoy all the offerings we've put out for them!

Don't have access to fresh Marigolds? You can get reuseable paper ones from our amigas at Artelexia.

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Photos should be on the highest level of the altar, and can be spread about the other levels as well. The altar can be dedicated to one family member, or to many loved ones. They can be friends, relatives, pets and even celebrities. Anyone who has passed and who you'd like to remember and call back to.

Around each person's photo we also place items that were special to them. A musical instrument that your abuelo loved to play, or a special hair pin of your abuela's.

Find hand-painted Dia de Muertos photo frames on our website.


On a lower level we will add our loved ones' favorite meals and drinks. This food, once put out, should not be eaten by anyone in the house, human or pet! It will be consumed by their spirits when they come to celebrate with us on Nov. 1 & Nov. 2! If your loved one was a drinker, make sure their favorite drink is at hand as well. It is a party, after all!

Browse cookware in our kitchen section, here.


Skulls are a reminder that death is always present, and the end of all of our roads. Many families decorate and put out Mexican sugar skulls. We also put out ceramic skulls from different Mexican pottery traditions, whether brightly painted skulls from Guerrero, or black clay skulls from Oaxaca. They're beautiful and made to last year after year.

Find our favorite handmade skulls here.

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Candles & Incense

Smoke has long been important to Mexican native cultures. It's a medium of communication with the gods— a way to send messages and blessings. We use votive candles and copal incense, made from the sacred Mexican copal tree, to carry our praise skyward and to attract the spirits to our altar.

Get our favorite copal incense here.

Water & Salt

These two essential items symbolize the purification of the souls of the deceased as they return home. Water quenches their thirst after their long journey, and salt preserves the deceased's body, to help them on their journey.

Find beautiful clay receptacles for both items on our website in the kitchen section.

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We hope you’ve enjoyed this guide to building your first altar, or offering, for Day of the Dead. We can't wait for to you share this tradition with your loved ones as we do with ours! Share your pictures with us on Instagram @Colores-Mexicanos-Chicago so we can join your celebration!