HOW TO MAKE ALTARS THAT WORK 🕯️ The History of Halloween, Dia de Los Muertos

HOW TO MAKE ALTARS THAT WORK 🕯️ The History of Halloween, Dia de Los Muertos

Halloween may have just come and gone, but before you pack away all the spooky season excitement along with the costumes, let’s take a moment to celebrate our beautiful resilience. It has gotten us through another uncertain year! As we count down to the last two months of 2021, the ancestors are making their homecoming visits in many traditions around the world. From Samhain to Diwali and Halloween to Día de Los Muertos, this is a season for celebrating light emerging from darkness

Many cultures, ancient and modern, around the world believe that the veil that separates the realm of the living and the deceased are the thinnest during this time of year.

For the record, we have no idea how it’s already time for the “major holidays” and end-of-year festivities, either. If you’re battling a case of SADs (Seasonal Affective Disorder), check out our healing plant guide for mental health, and please be gentle with yourself as the leaves start to fall.

The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. Jolly Hallowe'en.


On October 31 annually, people all over the world celebrate All Hallows’ Eve, better known today in the US and in many other countries as 'Halloween'.

Rarely between trick or treating and bobbing for apples do we hear about the ancient Celtic ritual Samhain (pronounced sah-win). This original festival celebrating the changing of seasons from light to dark and summer to winter is what first inspired what we refer to today as Halloween.

The “veil” that separates the realms of the living and the deceased was said to be thinnest during this time of year. Therefore, the Celts would traditionally light a bonfire, prepare sweets, and wear costumes in an attempt to ward off evil spirits on and around Samhain.

But, a tug of war with the Christian church began as early as the 4th century, when feasts were held to commemorate Christian martyrs. Around 609 or 610, “all the dead” were first honored by Pope Boniface IV and later by Pope Gregory III (731-741) whose November 1 oratory was dedicated to “all the just made perfect who are at rest throughout the world.” Thus, November 1 became All Saints’ Day. The church, wanting to impose its authority, tried to discourage people from celebrating Halloween as they had done in the past with fire-making, treats, costumes, and honoring dead “spirits”.

Still, many continued to celebrate All Hallows’ Eve while others worshipped on All Saints’ Day.

It is important to make a distinction between these holidays, and to note: while Día de Los Muertos is celebrated in Mexico during overlapping dates—from October 31 to November 2—there is one major difference between Halloween and the Mexican festivities that happen during a similar timeframe.

Halloween is enchanted by the more somber notion of death, whereas Día de Los Muertos celebrates life after death, focusing on deepening connections between the living and the dead.

Topical Press Agency / Stringer / Getty Images



FACT: Black cats as Halloween decorations are typical. Even more common is the myth that a black cat crossing your path is a symbol of bad luck. The truth is: “elderly, solitary women were often accused of witchcraft, and their pet cats were said to be their ‘familiars’, or demonic animals that had been given to them by the devil” (Live Science). Demonizing single women is nothing new; but, in Ireland, Scotland, England, and other cultures worldwide, it’s actually considered good luck if a black cat crosses your path. Cats, regardless of the color of their fur, are most symbolic of rebirth and resurrection, mystery and magic, healing, and their “nine lives”—even more reasons to nurture the precious creatures.


FACT: The most frequent imagery used in modern Halloween celebrations is of grotesque witches with black, pointy hats, shading their wart-filled noses, and stirring magical potions in boiling cauldrons. The truth is: Worshippers of the original “Crone” or pagan goddess honored “the whole cycle of nature and with it the whole life cycle of women” (BBC). “Earth mother” and “the old one” are some of The Crone’s other names, underscoring her place as a symbol of wisdom and the changing of seasons.


FACT: Historians debate whether Pomona, the day the Romans honored the Roman goddess of fruit and trees (symbolized by the apple) or the traditions of early European colonists (who brought North America its first apple tree seeds) bobbing for apples was the origin of what is loosely practiced during Halloween today. Either way, apple bobbing has long been associated with courtship, fertility, and women's ability to find a husband or suitor. From determining a woman’s romantic destiny or ability to conceive, myths have even perpetuated the idea that the results of the apple bobbing games would influence a girl’s dreams about her future husband on Halloween night.

Mundi Cuervo


This Mexican tradition, which translates as “Day of the Dead”, is both a celebration and ritual practice that “favors memory over oblivion” according to the official site of the Mexican government. While the holiday originated in Mexico, it is also celebrated on November 1 throughout the Latin American diaspora, including in Los Angeles, California, and in other US cities with large Latinx populations.

In pre-Hispanic times, Mexicans buried their dead wrapped in a mat. Relatives then helped guide them on their journey to Mictlán by throwing parties with foods the departed one enjoyed in life because they worried their loved one may be hungry on their way home.

Indigenous peoples had a vision that endures today, believing that “the souls of the deceased return home to the world of the living, to live with their families and to nourish themselves with the essence of the food that is offered to them on the altars placed in [their] honor” (Mexican government).

While Día de Los Muertos is said to have first arrived in Mexico when Spanish conquistadores brought their Catholic rituals to the country, it also represents the intersection of native commemorations of the “Day of the Dead”, which existed since prehispanic times.

In fact, among the indigenous celebrants of this ancient and sacred ritual observance were the ancient Mexican, Mixteca, Texcocanos, Zapotecs, Tlaxcalans, and Totonacs, who collectively merged their own venerable traditions with those of the Christian calendar. Unsurprisingly, this also aligned with the end of the agricultural cycle of Mexico’s main food crop: corn.

Families dedicate offerings to loved ones who have transitioned in the form of altars. Popular altar decorations include: marigolds, sugar skulls, pan de muerto, papel picado, and special dishes the relatives may have enjoyed while on earth. Incense, candles, and flowers help both to aromatize and light the physical space, offering guiding clues for the souls to travel good paths after death.


UNESCO declared Día de Los Muertos as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2008. Annually, indigenous peoples and their ancestors, as well as diverse communities in Mexico and their dearly departed loved ones throughout the world, are all united on this important day to reinforce the bonds between two otherwise separate worlds: that of the living and that of the dead. UNESCO’s recognition of this festival also helps reinforce the social and cultural place indigenous Mexican communities occupy, one that’s often ignored or forgotten both at home and abroad.


Also known as an ofrenda, the centerpiece of celebrating Día de Los Muertos is the altar. These altars are commonly found either in people’s homes or in cemeteries. What makes Día de Los Muertos altars most unique is their function: rather than for worship, they are constructed with the goal of welcoming spirits to return to the realm of the living. Praise and prayers are sent up in the form of the smoke from copal, whose resin is used to purify the area surrounding this special altar.

Since this type of altar is specifically designed for one day a year and has a particular function, we’re sharing some tips today for other types of altars you may want to consider building at home.

The vital elements to altar building you’ll find below are for creating sacred spaces to conduct intention, protection, and invocation. Altars alter frequency and conduct spiritual energy for rebirth and rejuvenation, so it’s critical that they are built with sincere love and attention.

Before commencing your own altar, it is vital to follow psychic cleansing and protection techniques to bring in the highest frequency to the space in which you intend to build it.


With the exception of altars constructed just for special occasions like Día de Los Muertos, your modern home altar should include these four essential components:

Direction + Purpose
Fire, Air, Earth, Water
North, South, East, West
Gifts for the spirits



The spirits of the four cardinal spaces are held in a metaphysical space for the release of energy. If asked sincerely by activating the heart center, the spirits are said to render, through divine aid, for whatever ailment or misfortune needs to be lifted. 


Other symbols North represents: The Ancient Ones, Wisdom, Spiritual, Ancestral Guidance.


Other symbols East represents: Alchemy, New Beginnings, Transmissions, Future Self.


Other symbols South represents: Growth, Endurance, Self-Discovery.


Other symbols West represents: Intuition, Emotions, Death, Ending Cycles



A place to adolore (adore) or altare (create a podium/stage), as the Latin derivative words suggest, altars are physical places to worship, honor, and make offerings/sacrifices as ritual and recurring practices. 

Contrary to popular belief, altars cross religious boundaries. Historically, Pagans, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus and Jews, as well as ancient Greeks, Romans, and Norse peoples, all used them.

It’s important to note that modern home altar building does not have to be tied to, or conflict with, any religious beliefs you and your family may hold. An altar is a private place to channel the energy, frequencies, and intentions you wish to positively influence your life, calling on all of the available ancestral wisdom to help guide you to your highest purpose and potential.

Here are seven altar building practices from around the world. If you don’t already have a home altar, we hope they remind you that whoever and wherever you are, your ancestors likely built some type of altar. That means you can, too! 

(Hint: The “dark”, moonless part of the year is the perfect time to start building an altar.)

The Rubin Museum


Origin: Japanese Buddhist culture

What it is: The Buddhist family altar (butsudan 仏壇 ). In Japan, the butsudan is the center of home-based devotional activities. Here, people “report” happenings among the living family members to their ancestors and keep communication flowing among the generations. 



Origin: Theravada Buddhists in Southeast Asia

What it is: Scholars have argued that the word cetiya (Pāli language) is directly related to the Sanskrit word caitya. These are “reminders” or “memorials” in the form of objects and places that emphasize an historical (rather than a metaphysical) connection to Gautama Buddha.


Origin: South Asian Hindu cultures

What it is: The American Hindu household is likely to perform rituals and puja, study scripture, and gather as a community in one another’s “home altars” to celebrate special events, such as holidays and weddings. Here, devotees also sing bhajans, decorate with tiny lights and miniature images, and make up for the scattered Hindu community and isolated priest populations by making home altars to sustain their beliefs in the diaspora.

Saint John Church


Origin: Ancient Greece, Slavic Native Faith, pre-Christian roots

What it is: Also known as the “scared” or “red” corner, this small worship space was historically part of the homes of Eastern Orthodox, Greek-Catholic, and Roman Catholic Christians, as well as Rodnovers (Slavic Native Faith). It is believed that this ancient Orthodox tradition originated in the first century, when churches were not separated so Christians gathered in private homes for the purpose of worship. Because Orthodox prayer traditionally directs to the East, these altars are most often found in north- or south east room corners, or on a wall of the house that faces East.

Department of Tourism West Bengal


 Origin: The Ganges basin of eastern India

What it is: A private shine that can be in a personal residence or in a separate room or structure within a larger compound. Common features according to Jain scholars include: not exceeding approximately 21 centimeters in height, and serving as the springboard for a more formal shikharbandi Jinalaya when the Jain community grows to be sufficiently large. As with the Hindu home altar and other traditional sacred spaces, these “house temples” represent individual desires to connect to a greater place for communal praise and prayer.

Green Shinto


Origin: Japan Shinto religious practitioners

What it is: Known by other names like “god/spirit-shelf”, the kamidana (神棚) is a miniature altar found in Japanese homes to enshrine a Shinto kami, which can be translated as a spirit or “holy power” that is venerated in the Shinto religion. The purpose of giving the shintai (an object that houses a chosen kami) a physical form is to facilitate worship, such as a small circular mirror, jewels, or another object that has significant symbolic or spiritual value. Similar to other shrines, kamidana offerings include prayers, food, and flowers. Family members must cleanse their hands and mouths before worshipping at the kamidana, which may also be found outside of private homes in martial arts dōjōs throughout Japan.



Origin: 20th century England

What it is: Wiccan altars are raised structures that are used for a variety of purposes, ranging from God and Goddess worship to spell casting and/or reciting chants and prayers. Materials like wood are believed to have specific magical properties, while the left and right sides have their own significance. Wiccan author Scott Cunningham writes that the left side of the altar is the “Goddess area” (equipped with feminine symbols such as bowls, chalices, Goddess representations, etc.) and the right side is then reserved for the God. On this side of the altar go the phallic symbols (wands, God statuary and his candle, athame, etc.), and then the center is reserved for symbols like the pentacle, which is core to the Wiccan faith. 

As with the recommended modern altar building practices above, which draw from ancestral wisdom across cultures and faiths, Wiccans have also traditionally incorporated the cardinal directions and the Earth’s elements into their altars. Wiccans use gems, salt, water, and plant and insect materials to represent these elements in a more literal manner. 

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While all seven of these altar building practices include a range of specific parameters that are informed by centuries of wisdom and cultures across generations, what they share in common is the desire to harness both past and present energies and individuals. Their underlying goal is to allow the living to experience a deeper spiritual connection to the present, informed by a continuum of human experiences and embodied knowledge.

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Informational content from this article was adapted from the following sources: History, New York Public Library, The Catholic Encyclopedia, Live Science, BBC, NPR, PBS, Insider, Government of Mexico, National Geographic, Culture Trip, Japanese Religions, The Pluralism Project, and Britannica.

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