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How To Create a Día de los Muertos Altar

Dead loved ones return to visit the living during Día de los Muertos. Here's how to greet them with the proper welcome. 

Day of the Dead, also known as Día de los Muertos, is a beautiful holiday. There are many ways of doing it and — with the exception of a horrible pseudo-fiesta in which you put on a racist-ass costume and get crunk on bad mezcal — none of them are wrong.

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Traditions change all the time, and this one has evolved immensely since its birth in the early days of colonial Mexico. Latino communities in the U.S. in particular have found a myriad of ways to reinvent the celebration, incorporating new practices like parades and costumes to the age-old custom of visiting cemeteries and decorating graves with orange marigolds.

But maybe you want to be a bit more elaborate and do it like we do in the old country. In that case you've come to the right place, friend. Your humble correspondent did some research – i.e., called his mom (which you should do more often, by the way, your mom misses you) — to write an easy step-by-step guide to creating your very own Day of the Dead altar.

Before we go ahead, though, it's important to emphasize that what I'm about to describe is not the only way to do it. Every family in Mexico has their own traditions. This is simply the way my mom does it and the way her mom did it, which I wanted to share.

But why the hell do you need an altar, you ask?

The Day of the Dead is the product of a unique mixture of worldviews. When the Spaniards colonized Mexico in the 16h century — yeah, that horrible incident — they began converting indigenous people to Catholicism. That process, though, was not a one-way street. The original inhabitants of Mexico adopted the faith of the king, but they retained many of their old beliefs.

One of the results of that mixing is the Day of the Dead. At the core of the tradition is the idea that the dead are allowed to return to Earth once a year. But don't worry, gringo — this isn't a zombie-apocalypse scenario, but more of a bittersweet family reunion.

The problem is that the path from the netherworld to the land of the living is a long and treacherous one. The altar serves as a kind of beacon to guide the souls of the dead to your house. The powerful scent of flowers and incense, the glow of the candles, and the brightly colored papel picado all act as a giant cross-dimensional welcome sign to ensure that your grandmother makes it safe to your living room.

The altar also serves as a communal table. You will place food and drink for your otherworldly visitors, who don't get to eat mole and carnitas very often and will be very happy that you made their favorite food for them. You are welcome to some of the food, of course — but be polite and let your guests eat first. Wait until the morning before attacking.

Now that we got that out of the way, here is how you build a Day of the Dead Altar.

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