How to decorate for a Mexican Day of the Dead celebration - WBRC FOX6 News - Birmingham, AL

How to decorate for a Day of the Dead celebration

Day of the Dead decorations usually include brightly painted skulls and lots of skeletons. (©iStockphoto/Thinkstock) Day of the Dead decorations usually include brightly painted skulls and lots of skeletons. (©iStockphoto/Thinkstock)

By Roberta Pescow

The Day of the Dead is a centuries old celebration rooted in the beliefs and traditions of the indigenous peoples of Mexico. Rather than viewing death as a taboo and terrifying subject, it's seen as just another phase of life with opportunity for a continuing connection between the dead and the living.

During the Day of the Dead, most often celebrated November 1 and 2, observers believe that the spirits of the dead are allowed to come back and visit loved ones. The festivities involve lots of warm memories, delicious foods and of course decorations.

Getting started

Decorating for any holiday involves cleaning up your house, and Day of the Dead is no exception. After all, these are very special visitors that are expected, and they'll be journeying quite a long way. Traditionally, before putting up any Day of the Dead decorations, the house should be cleaned from top to bottom, including washing the windows! Additionally, if loved ones are buried nearby, holiday customs include cleaning and decorating the gravesite.

Day of the Dead symbols for decoration

Since Day of the Dead celebrates death and the departed, symbols of death are prominent in holiday decorations. Rather than looking scary, they are generally brightly colored and festive. Here are some traditional death-themed decorations for the Day of the Dead:

Papel picado: These elaborate tissue paper cut outs hang like brightly colored flags all around the room. Their intricate designs might include skeletons of people or animals engaged in different activities, skulls, crosses or floral designs. Hang them from the ceiling, on the wall, over doorways or from the edges of a table or alter.

Toys: Displays of handmade dolls and puppets modeled after the deceased and their interests often have skulls for faces. Any other macabre toys are also appropriate for Day of the Dead décor.

Skulls and bones: Day of the Dead decorations usually include brightly painted skulls and lots of skeletons. These might appear as paper dolls, art prints and three-dimensional forms. As with papel picado, these skeletons are also depicted taking part in human activities such as riding a bicycle, playing instruments or dancing.

Memories of loved ones

In honor of your spirit visitors, Day of the Dead decorations should include some memorabilia from their lives here on earth. These might include:

- Framed photographs of the departed

- Favorite possessions of the departed such as jewelry, books, trophies, musical instruments or toys

- Any works of art, music, writing or crafts the departed created

Day of the Dead flowers & lights

Many observers of Day of the Dead believe that candlelight and the scent of copal incense helps the spirits of departed loved ones find their way back for a visit. Families often hold all-night candlelight vigils during this holiday. Not surprisingly candles, oil lanterns and incense are considered an important part of Day of the Dead décor in the home and at the gravesite.

Fresh flowers enhance any holiday design and this holiday is no exception. While any fresh flowers are acceptable, on the Day of the Dead, marigolds are definitely the flowers of choice. This is because according to ancient Mexican beliefs, the sweet scent of marigolds attracts the spirits of those who have passed on. Fill your home with wreaths, vases or pots of these pretty blossoms, or sprinkle some petals around your other decorations. Some families like to create a path of marigolds from their homes to the gravesite and dress up the grave itself with marigold bouquets or wreaths.

Day of the Dead food displays

Your spirit guests are going to need something to eat and traditional Day of the Dead foods are an essential part of festive home design. You'll want to include beautiful arrangements of some of these delicious offerings among your other holiday decorations:

- Pan de muertos (a sweet bread often in the shape of a skull and/or crossbones and flavored with orange and anise)

- Animas (dark breads molded into human shapes)

- Sugar skulls inscribed with the name of the departed

- Sugar coffins

- Fruit and nuts

- Plates of rice, beans, meat or chicken

- Mole (sauce)

- Candied sweet potatoes or pumpkin

- Atole (corn gruel)

- Beer and tequila

- Coffee

- Extra candies and sweets for departed children

- Any other favorite foods of the deceased

Welcoming the dead with decorations

After traveling to your home, you'd expect guests to be a bit tired and craving some rest and comfort. Day of the Dead visitors have endured a longer journey than any of your other guests and decorating for this holiday includes touches that show what a considerate host you are. To help your guests rest and freshen up when they arrive, make sure your design plans include an artful arrangement of items such as:

- Soft pillows and blankets

- A pretty bowl of fresh water and soap to wash up with

- Clean towels

- Combs, brushes and other grooming implements

- A mirror

A Day of the Dead alter

Day of the Dead displays look great all around your house, but an alter is still the traditional decorating focus for this holiday. Building your alter doesn't have to be a complicated affair; even a table covered with a clean white sheet can serve this purpose. Use this alter to display photos of departed loved ones surrounded by:

- Candles

- Incense

- Flowers

- Bright, whimsical death-themed figures/artwork

- Elaborate wreaths and crosses decorated with fresh, silk or paper flowers

- Artfully prepared food offerings

The Day of the Dead presents a wonderful opportunity to remember those who have passed on and to embrace the unknown without fear. Your guests from this world and the next will appreciate the love, care and humor that went into putting together a festive holiday atmosphere for this celebration of the endurance of love.

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