Dia de los Muertos—the Day of the Dead--is a holiday dear to the heart and soul of every Mexican that loves his ancestors. The Santa Muerte is the goddess connected to Dia de los Muertos. She pre-dates Christianity in that part of the world, and the Mexican people knew her as MICTECACIHUATL, Lady of the Land of the Dead. She was believed to be a protector of souls residing in the dark underworld, and she is depicted as a woman in a skull mask and traditional dress decorated with flags which were put upon corpses prepared for cremation.
Originally, this holiday fell at the end of of July and the beginning of August, and was dedicated to children and the dead. But when Spanish priests came to Mexico, the date was moved so that it coincided with All Hallows Eve, a Christian holiday. Nevertheless, Dia de los Muertos retains its ancient roots honoring the Lady of the Land of the Dead. You can celebrate Dia de los Muertos by making an Ancestral Altar. It will help you establish a real connection not only with your ancestors but, with the whole spiritual world. Once you make an altar to your ancestors, it will become like an antenna for other spirits who will take notice that you venerate and wish to work with them.
Making an ancestral altar is a simple. The first thing you will have to do is find some pictures of your deceased relatives with whom you have positive connections; aunts, uncles, grand parents or great grand parents. Although the best place for you to have an ancestral altar is your living room since the idea is for you to include your ancestors in your daily life, a closet in a separate room from your bedroom is also a good place to create your ancestor shrine.
Wash down the table top to purify it (white vinegar is good), then place a white table cloth on the altar top. Put a religious symbol at the back of the ancestral altar. This will be guided by the faith that your muertos (deceased relatives) practiced. Arrange the pictures on the altar with a clear glass of water for each relative and a vase to put an offering of fresh flowers. You will also need a white ceramic or glass plate and bowl to make food offerings. The plate and bowl do not always have to be on the altar (but keep them in a separate place from your regular eating plates and bowls). What will always be on the altar are the pictures, the clear glasses of water and the vase. You can also have a picture of La Santa Muerte on your altar, and a crystal skull to store the positive energies that grow from your prayer sessions and communication with the dead. The skull will give you strength in times of stress and great need.
Change the water weekly as well as any flowers that you have placed on the altar. Traditional flowers for the muertos are marigold (flor de muerto) chrysanthemum, jasmine flowers (for the spirit of death) and calla lily flowers. Try to designate one day of the week to devote to maintaining your altar--this way you always pray to your ancestors at least once every week.
Approach the altar, knock three times, and tell them who you are. Offer them the fresh water and say a prayer on their behalf, ask to bless them and help them grow in spirit. Talk to them for a while, tell them how you miss them, and have not forgotten them. Ask your ancestors for their blessing in your daily life ask them to help you have good health, love, and prosperity. Then light a white candle for them dressed with blessing oil if you have it and leave it there to burn for them, offering your muertos the light, heat, and energy of the candle. Prayers to the muertos should come from heart. If they were Catholic or Christian you can say a Christian prayer for them. To close the ceremony, clap three times.
Dia de los Muertos is more than just one day—it lasts from October 31st to November 2nd, and you can keep your ancestor altar up all year round. On November 2nd, the last day of the festival, give each of your muertos a calaveras de azucar--a sugar skull with his or her name on it. Take it to the cemetery if you can. It is customary to take a bite from each skull so a part of your muertos lives on through you!
by Nick Sigala
Art by Ungala