photo: Elexia De La Parra

Day of the Dead is a very special holiday that is close to my heart — and not so much because it's a Mexican tradition that dates back thousands of years, but more because it's a time to celebrate life. 

This tradition, also known in some European countries as All Saints Day, is celebrated from October 31 until November 2. And with Halloween right around the corner, this weekend is the perfect time to get all of your Día de los Muertos materials so you can set up your very own altar. 

Typically, an altar is built to remember our loved ones who have passed. However, you can celebrate Day of the Dead any which way you like. For example, if you don't want to honor a deceased person (s), you can pay tribute to an idea, a goal, a special moment in your life, or, frankly, anything you'd like. 

Elexia De La Parra, owner of Casa Artelexia in San Diego, knows a thing or two about how to build a Day of the Dead. Actually she knows more than a thing or two. Her entire store is full of the most eclectic and colorful Mexican things that can adorn any space. 

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I asked her about the basic things one would need when building an altar, and also, what the significance is behind each traditional item. 

‘Viva la Vida’ an altar in homage to Frida Kahlo © 2015 at the New York Botanical Garden by Andrea Arroyo. On view at the New York Botanical Garden through November 1st, 2015.

photo: Andrea Arroyo/New York Botanical Garden

Here's some insight on the importance of each day: "It is believed that on November 1st the souls of children return (because they are quicker) and adults return on the 2nd," de la Parra says. "During this celebration the graves of the deceased are cleaned and altars are built. Altars can also be made at home if the graves are too far. Photos are brought out, stories are shared, and the memories are kept alive."

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There are many elements that go into creating an altar, including various food and objects specific to Day of the Dead, so we've highlighted a few basic items you'll need to create one and their significance:

"Marigold flowers (cempasúchil) are used in altars for their scent, which guides the dead back home," De La Parra says. "Supposedly, the scent of marigold flowers is reminiscent of bone, and that is why these particular flowers are used."

"Because the dead will be hungry on their long journey home, it's fitting to add a few pieces of food," De La Parra says. "You'll see fruit, Pan de Muerto and other snacks on many altars. Pan de Muerto, or "bread of the dead", is traditional sweet bread baked especially for Dia De Los Muertos. You can usually find bone shapes and a "teardrop," for sorrow, on the top of Pan de Muerto, to represent the dead."

A photo posted by Casa Artelexia (@artelexia) on

"Papel picado banners are festively strung across the altars representing wind and the fragility of life," De La Parra adds. Place water on an altar because it helps quench the thirst of the dead after their long journey home.

A photo posted by Casa Artelexia (@artelexia) on

"Sugar skulls are an iconic memento mori placed on Day of the Dead altars," De La Parra says. "They represent both life and death, as they are placed on altars, but also given to the living." Altars should also have candles, or Christmas lights. Because we're inviting the dead to come back, they need to be guided, and the light leads them home. Another good token to place is the main thing or person you are honoring. 

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"Photos of the deceased are placed on the altars along with some of their personal and/or favorite items," De La Parra says. "If honoring your grandfather who loved his tequila, feel free to set out a glass of his favorite tequila for him to enjoy when he returns! This is where you can get creative in how you remember your loved ones when building your altar."

"Viva la Vida" an altar in homage to Frida Kahlo by artist Andrea Arroyo © 2015. On view at the New York Botanical Garden through November 1st, 2015.

photo: Andrea Arroyo/ Photo: New York Botanical Garden
"Although Day of the Dead is a Mexican holiday, I feel that all can appreciate its message and take joy in the holiday, tradition and celebration," De la Parra says.