Dia de los Muertos

November 1 & 2

El Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is a national holiday in Mexico. It's origins are found in ancient ceremonies of indigenous Mexicans.

Death has a unique persona in Mexico which is not found anywhere else in the world. In the pre-Hispanic cultures death was just a further step in life itself, a step which offered a security and serenity markedly contrasting with suffering and worries which afflicted mankind in this world of hardships. Life and death compliment each other. The ancient Mexicans believed that life issued from death just as death issued from life.

With the introduction of Catholicism, attention was no longer focused on Death itself but rather on the dead, on the spirits. And os the Mexican people celebrate ever November 2 on the return of their dear departed who, as ethereal souls, come back for one day to their burial place and the home where they lived.

In many homes a ritual alter (ofrenda) is prepared to honor the returning souls. The altars are often adorned with Marigold which is the traditional flower of the dead. There is incense and a candle to light the way for each returning soul. Food is prepared, always the dish of which the dead is fondest in life. A glass of water is set out and personal mementos and an image of the person.

For children, delightful toys, usually skeletons made of paper maché and wire are created for the Day of the Dead. These calaveras or skulls, and dancing skeletons are wonderfully amusing. All walks of life and occupations are depicted. There are even toy cardboard coffins from which a skeleton can be made to jump by pulling a string.

Families go to the cemeteries to clean and decorate them with flowers. At night they take food and drink to the tombs to share with the visiting spirits. Music is played and stories are told. It is a time of sharing happy memories and family togetherness.

Today in Mexico, Day of the Dead is a tradition that is rapidly changing. Although celebrated traditionally in rural Mexico, in the urban centers the Halloween influence is evident. It is important to remember that Dia de los Muertos is not Halloween. 

Pan de Muerto (Dead Bread)

We make a special type of pan dulce (Mexican sweet bread) for Dia de los Muertos. It comes in three shapes, men, women, and round with crossed bones on top. They are made from a bread dough flavored with cinnamon and sugar and decorated with colorful sugars, sprinkles, and caritas (little faces). Dead Bread is great with Mexican Hot Chocolate by the way! They are a symbol of the departed family and friends and are also an offering on the ofrenda. The bread is baked for both the living and the dead.

Ofrenda (altar)

The ofrenda is central to observing Dia de los Muertos and is maintained to ensure good relations between the family on earth and family in the after world.

Whatever the deceased enjoyed in life is remembered in preparing the altar. Photographs occupy the center, and names are spelled out with cloves on fruits and with a pen on nuts. Religious images are placed the altar, in the hope that the saints thus venerated will intercede for the protection of the soul on its journey back to the afterword. Decorations may also include a Tree of Death, tombstones, lyres, flower, skull and skeletons of all sizes and materials, copal burning in clay censer, and delicately formed hearts.

Altars are an eight-course, multi-level feast with enough "soul foods" set out to provide the sustenance required by the visiting soul. These include dishes traditionally prepared for Dia de los Muertos, such as chicken in red or black mole sprinkled with sesame seeds, fruit, beans, tortillas, and tamales made from fresh, hand-ground corn, soft drinks, and as always, a glass of water to refresh the travel-wearied souls. Altars honoring children include a small bowl of milk, special cakes called mamones, copal, pieces of chocolate, little apples, minature candlesticks, toys, and sweets.

Once the honored guest has extracted the essence of the refreshments, they are shared with the family and friends, who have often traveled distances to take part in the  family's annual reunion.