The purpose of an ancestral altar isn’t to worship the ancestors, but to honor them as the ones who came before us and gave us life, and to remember them. We are the trees and the ancestors are the roots from which we gain nourishment. Returning to our roots is important, especially for those living in America who have been long divorced from their original lands where their people dwelt.
I usually recommend keeping altars in the public area of the home like the dining room, living room or kitchen, places where gatherings occur. It can be disruptive to sleep to keep any in the bedroom, but if that’s the best space for you then give it a try, maybe keeping it behind a curtain.
An ancestral altar can be simple or elaborate, but above all, it should be beautiful. Be creative, make it fun. It could be a whole table, or it could be a shelf, or even a window sill. Keep at least one candle on the altar to be lit every day (I use tealights or pillars for this), or once a week, and a glass of spring water as a blessed offering. You can keep photos of your ancestors on the altar, just don’t include any photos of the living.
You can keep other items that belonged to ancestors on the altar as well. If you don’t have photos or personal items that belonged to family members, use items that make you feel connected to your lineage and to the earth. Special stones, for example, or a pot of earth. Keeping items that symbolize the natural elements is a reminder that we come from the earth and these elements, which are our most ancient ancestors.
When you’re done setting up your altar, whether its just a candle and a glass of water or more, burn incense (rosemary, lavender, frankincense and myrrh are all good options) to consecrate the space and then invite all your ancestors who come in love and peace to dwell and receive their honors. You don’t have to invite every ancestor, especially ones whose energy you don’t want affecting your life.
Leave food offerings as often as feels right to feed the spirits of your ancestors. The spirits take nourishment from the spirit of the food. It doesn’t have to be some elaborate meal, just something you know your ancestors would like, or even some things that you like if you don’t know your ancestors.
I often leave mini donuts on mine or a portion of any baked goods I make or buy. When I’m cooking I’ll usually set aside a portion of what I’ve made for this altar as well. Coffee is another great offering. I leave most food offerings out overnight, some I leave longer.
To get to know your ancestors if you have no real knowledge of them, the first place to begin is in meditation or by creating a dream pillow to help you connect with them when you sleep. If you need, you can schedule a spiritual guidance session with me as a mediator and I can divine the best way for you to honor and grow your relationship with your ancestors.