The Day of the Dead: A Mexican Tradition
The Day of the Dead, or Dia de los Muertos, is a family-oriented celebration with private and public gatherings to remember friends and family members who have passed away. This uniquely Mexican holiday has its roots in the indigenous culture of the central and southern parts of the country and was virtually unknown in the north until the latter part of the 20th century. However, in the 1960s, the Mexican government decided to use the Day of the Dead tradition as a means of unifying the country. It declared November 2nd a public holiday and the annual celebration is now observed throughout the country.
The Day of the Dead is an important tradition in Mexico. The origins of the celebration are based on the belief that the gates of heaven open at midnight each October 31 allowing the spirits of departed children, known as “los angelitos”, to reunite with their families for the next 24 hours. Then on November 2, deceased adults are honored and remembered.
This Mexican tradition dates back at least three thousand years. Back in the days of the Aztec Empire, the rites honoring the departed would begin in early August and would last nearly a month. But after the Spanish conquest, this indigenous holiday was moved to November 1 and 2 such that it would coincide with the Roman Catholic holidays of All Saints and All Souls Day.
Celebrating the Day of the Dead
In many families, the tradition is for an area of the house is cleaned and set aside to make room for the altar that is the focal point of the ceremony. An altar is built and decorated with candles, buckets of wild marigolds known as cempasuchil, photographs of the deceased and religious symbols such as crosses and statues of the Virgin of Guadaloupe.
Traditionally, a wash basin, razors and soap are left on the altar so the spirit can get cleaned up after their long journey. Sugar skulls representing the departed are placed on the shrine. Ofrendas (offerings) such the favorite foods, beverages and personal items belonging to the deceased are left for them as well. Families spend time around the altar, praying and telling stories about the departed.
On November 2nd, families go to the cemetery to visit the tombs of their relatives. They tidy up and decorate the graves of departed family members with marigolds and candles. And, they spread out blankets near the grave and have a picnic where the favorite foods of lost loved ones are on the menu.
Why Sugar Skulls?
The art of using sugar for artistic expression was brought to the New World by Italian missionaries in the 17th century. Mexico had plenty of sugar, but little hard currency to buy pricey church decorations imported from the European continent. Local artists began using sugar to create original artistic designs, including the skulls used to honor the deceased in the Day of the Dead celebrations.
Originally, these decorative skulls were meant to represent a particular individual whose name would be written on the skull’s forehead. These sugar skulls are placed on the altar or the gravestone to honor the spirit’s return.
Pan de Muerto
Another traditional food featured at Day of the Dead celebrations is Pan de Muerto, a round loaf of sweet egg bread. The top of the loaf is decorated with rolled strips of dough made to resemble bones. The bread is enjoyed at parties, festivals and at the cemetery where the living gather to celebrate the lives of the dead.
Although making this dish at home can be time-consuming, here’s a Pan de Muerto recipe for those intrepid types who’d like to try making it themselves. Others can just pick up a loaf at the local bakery or “mini-super”.
Until next time …