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ancestor altars - the how and the why of it

As we move into the witchy energy of late October, veils between the worlds become paper-thin, boundaries dissolve, and we may find portals to other realms. It's a magical time that reveals life and death, light and dark, illumination and shadow. The play between the two. That liminal space. That threshold.

Which is why, throughout time and across cultures, this has been a time of ancestor veneration. A time to honor and thank those who've gone before us and paved the way for us to be here.

One of my favorite rituals is to create an ancestor altar. Ever since I made my first back in 2013, it has become one of my most cherished traditions.


My first few altars, like this one from 2015, were very much in the Day of the Dead theme - brightly colored flowers, sugar skulls, and religious iconography. 


And this one from 2017 shows much the same vibe.


It's only been in the last few years that I've brought in my own aesthetic - and that of my family lineage.  We are not brightly colored Mexican folks. We are restrained and steady and staid folks of German descent. My ancestors were salt of the earth, midwestern farmers.


And though, I will admit, I have at times longed for warmth and connection where there was a cool distance, it began to feel important to honor my ancestors as they actually were (at least in my perception) and not what I sometimes wished them to be.


So the colors became muted and neutral and rustic. Fake flowers were replaced with dried greenery. Religious icons were kept to a minimum.  Personal affects, like jewelry and journal pages and gloves were added. And crystals. Because, duh, crystals.


And so this one from last year felt so much more like family to me.  And in honoring my people as they actually were, I began to appreciate them in a way I hadn't before. Where I once bemoaned their lack of warmth, now I honored their strength. Where I once thought there was a lack of connection, I began to see we just connected differently. Instead of physical touch and deep conversation, we connect through shared activities. A day on the lake. Water-skiing. Doing puzzles. Playing cards.


That's my family.


So this is our altar this year. My husband's ancestors and mine. And their belongings. And their vibe.


And it's been a tough one. And I knew it would be. The first year I've had to add mom to the ancestor shrine.


I miss her so much. And I wish I could say I feel her with me, but the truth is I don't really. At least not yet. Right now, I just miss her.


OK, onto some things you might want to consider as you put together your own ancestor shrine.


1. Gathering materials


As you gather your materials - old photographs, jewelry, belongings - consider your family and your lineage.  What qualities and characteristics did they embody? What have they passed down to you? How can you visually represent those qualities?


2.  Choosing the space

The space I chose is right by our front door, which felt like welcoming the ancestors in. But really I chose it mostly for the old steamer trunk that sits there, an heirloom passed down through the generations. It was the trunk that carried my ancestors belongings from Germany to America. Perhaps there is some symbolism in the place you choose. A mantle for the family that sat around the fire. A piano for a musical ancestry. A bookcase for a literary lineage.

Within that space, consider how you can best use it. I like a lot of layers and height so I tend to use boxes - some are family jewelry boxes that hold special meaning, but most are just whatever I can find to create some depth and height - covered in antique doilies or fabrics. If your space is against a wall, you can attach photos and other ephemera to the wall.  If it's in the center of the room, like on a grand piano or dining table, you can create a whole 360 degree display. You can even hang things from the ceiling.


3. Personal belongings

In addition to old photographs, this might be my favorite element, and the one that really began to make things feel more personal for me. My maternal grandmother's gloves, locket, and pages from her journal.


You could include a scarf, watch, pocket knife, army tags, silverware, eyeglasses, money clip, really the possibilities are endless. I am most drawn to those items used or warn on a daily basis.


And if you don't have any actual items from your ancestors, not to worry, simply use an item as a symbol. A wooden spoon for the grandma who showed her love though her cooking. A deck of cards for that cardshark uncle. A quarter for the grandpa that would always pull one out of your ear. A journal for that poet great aunt.


4. Jewelry

You will not be surprised that my favorite personal item to include is jewelry. There is something about jewelry - especially those pieces worn day in and day out - that feels so much like it carries the energy of those who once wore it.  These rings - from my two grandmothers - are so dear to me.


5. Skellies, skulls, dried flowers or leaves, and other memento mori

In Latin memento mori means "Remember Death". These are reminders that life is short and at the end of it, we leave all our works, our belongings, our qualities, our patterns, and ways of being as an inheritance for the next generation.


6. The friend zone



I have a little section on my altar for friends who've passed away, often long before their time. These are members of my soul family, many of whom have taught me and nurtured me just as much as any blood ties could.


7. Creative heroes + offerings

Yup, that's Frida back there. Not connected by blood, but a representation of the strong female artists, healers, and mystics that paved the way.


And a little goblet. I put coffee in there each morning as an offering, though my ancestors might be wishing for something a bit stronger. Other offerings can include money, snacks, herbs, or trinkets.


8. Saints or deities

Though I personally usually connect more with deities from Hindu or Buddhist traditions, for my ancestor altar, I like to include symbols of Christianity, the faith of my ancestors.


9. Candles or string lights to light the way 

Including candles is not only a way to honor the ancestors but also a way to light their path to you.


I usually put my altar up in the week leading up to Samhain (you can read more about Samhain here) and leave it up until just after Thanksgiving.


These are just ideas. There is no right or wrong way to create your ancestor altar. Do what feels best to you and you may find the practice evolves over the years.


If you try it, I'd love to see or hear how the ritual sits with you.


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