CALAVERAS - Elementary Grades K-3 - download OFRENDAS - All grade levels - download PAPEL PICADO - Elementary Grades K-3 - download PAPEL PICADO - Upper Elementary/Middle School - download SUGAR SKULLS - Elementary/High School - download
The food, décor, items and materials that grace an ofrenda carry important historical and individual meaning. This glossary provides a quick glimpse into the symbolism and history of some items associated with Día de los Muertos altars.
AGUA (WATER) Traveling souls, like living beings, have nutritional needs. Along with tasty treats, water is set out to quench the thirst of the dead after their journey. Water is also a symbol of baptism.
CEMPOALXOCHITL (MARIGOLDS) Flowers, a general symbol of love and friendship, have as many meanings as there are types of flowers. The rich golden hue of marigolds symbolizes the preciousness that isthe gift of life.
COPAL (INCENSE) Copalli, the Nahuatl word for incense, is an amber-like resin and was burned as a sacredoffering to the ancient gods.
PAN DE MUERTO Y CALAVERAS (SWEET BREADS AND SUGAR SKULLS) Bread was used in offertory rituals for All Souls Day (Nov. 2) in Spain for centuries and was known as pan de animas. The Edict of Milan of 313 A.D., Constantine’s famous tract making Christianity legal, also legitimized the incorporation of various pagan rituals—particularly, the importance placed on relics. After the conquest, all the way across theAtlantic, Spanish migrants had to get creative in producing relics to celebrate All SoulsDay. The answer, of course, was the fashioning of skulls out of sugar and bones out of bread.
PAPEL PICADO (CUT PAPER) Pre-Columbian people had long used amate paper in their decorating. After the arrivalof the Spaniards, the southern ports were the New World’s point of contact withOriental goods. Fine silks and other luxury items imported from the Far East were packaged in delicate papel de china (tissue paper). The relatively inferior item wasdiscarded and then gathered by the poor coastal people and used for celebrations andholy days. The fragility of the tissue paper symbolizes the transience of our human existence.
PETATE (WOVEN FLOOR MAT) It is placed before the ofrenda so that the spirits may rest after their long journey.Additionally, its resemblance to a shroud is significant. In pre-Columbian days, the deadwere buried in a petate—a custom still practiced by the very poor in Mexico today.
SAL (SALT) Tlaxcal, as it was known in pre-Columbian times, symbolized fraternity and love. Afterthe evangelization of the Americas, it symbolized the Christ’s purification of the soul.
VELAS (CANDLES) Velas provide a source of light for the traveling muertos. Velas are also a religious symbol of faith and hope.
XOLOITZCUINTLE (DOG) In Mesoamerican cultures, the dog was regarded as a companion in the afterlife to help the muertos cross the water of the underworld. In contemporary times, the dog symbolizes loyalty.