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Preparing an Altar for Dia de los Muertos

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November 1st and 2nd are the days set aside to celebrate Dia de los Muertos. Originally celebrated in Mexico, it is becoming increasingly common in Los Angeles. The origins of Dia de los Muertos have been traced back as far as Aztec festivals dedicated to the godess Mictecacihuatl. It is now celebrated on the Catholic holidays of All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day. It is believed that during this time it is easier for souls to travel back to earth to visit their loved ones. Altars with offerings and refreshments are set up to encourage a soul to visit and to provide sustinence and rest after their long journey back.

Making an altar for Day of the dead is a highly personal experience. Even though it may not be a part of your family tradition, you can always start a new tradition. The ritual of cooking your departed loved one's favorite foods and decorating the altar can be a peaceful and loving way to honor their memory. It can also be highly cathartic. It invites the spirit into your home for a loving visit without the tears and drama. It reminds us that their spirits are gentle and loving souls we once knew, not creepy ghosts and shadows.

Anything can be converted into an altar; the size is determined by the number of people you are honoring, the size of the pictures, and the amount of food. Traditionally, small amounts of food and drink are set out to welcome your loved one. Often a little alcohol or even cigarettes are left for them to enjoy. It is a joyful if bittersweet holiday, and cartoonish calaveras depicting the hobbies or professions of loved ones are usually present. Flowers (especially marigolds), sugar skulls, candles, religious icons, letters, paper decorations and other mementos can also be used to personalize the altar. The important thing is that it is meaningful to you, and allows you to honor your lost loved ones in a way that that feels appropriate.