Note: the following is adapted from an excerpt of the book, Celebraciones Mexicanas: History, Traditions and Recipes, by this columnist co-authored with Adriana Almazan Lahl, scheduled for release August 16, 2013.
Dia de Los Muertos
Day of the Dead, which is actually not a day at all, but festival that is spread over several days October 30th-November 2nd, is the oldest and one of the most famous Mexican celebrations and draws visitors from around the world.
While the holiday falls almost concurrently with Halloween, and the customs surrounding both events include sweets, skeletons and spirits; that is where the similarity ends. Until recently, there was no dressing in costumes or asking for candy in Mexico (this is something that recent “immigrated” and only occurs in parts of the country). Dia de los Muertos is neither scary, nor somber; it is joyous. The skeletons are not morbid; they are gaily dressed and lively. The spirits are not ghostly phantoms but rather those of the deceased, who are thought to return to visit their early-awaiting families on these special days.
Although the seasonal smells and colors of Los Muertos are in evidence everywhere, from the largest city to the most remote rancho, this is a private, family fiesta; a time of reunion and reunification of the living with the dead. There are some regional differences in dates, but generally October 31st or November 1 is Day of the Innocents (Dia de los Santos Inocentes), reserved for spirits of children who have passed, with a special days on October 30th in some parts for children who died before baptism (los niños en limbo). November 1st or 2nd is Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos or Dia de los Difunctos) a day to spend with the spirits of deceased adults.
European or Pre-Columbian Roots
Mexico’s Day of the Dead festival is a living example of what the Church sought to avoid when All Souls Day was established in 13th century Europe; persistent adherence to pre-Christian rituals and attitudes. The Spanish may have introduced the custom of food-offerings to Mexico, whom, in spite of the Church’s efforts to eradicate the tradition, enjoyed feasting with their dead. However, the similarities between pre and post Hispanic traditions in Meso-America make it difficult to trace the origins of specific aspects of the festivities honoring the dead.
Day of the Dead Rituals in Modern Mexico
As Mexican families prepare for the festivities, houses are cleaned and furniture moved so as to have space to build a colorful altar. These altars (altares) are the fruit of a complicated family project, which may begin days, even weeks prior and in which everyone in the family has a role. Almost everyone goes to the cemetery (pantheon) and in some areas of Mexico, even spend the entire night visiting with the spirits of their loved ones, beside their graves. It is not uncommon to picnic at the gravesite. Family members clean up and decorate graves, which attracts vendors to the cemeteries selling flowers and decorations. Others play music to entertain the deceased and their families, hoping to earn a few pesos.
Day of the Dead Bread
Pan de Muertos (Day of the Dead bread), is as fascinating in its folklore as it is in its variety of shape and style. Undoubtedly a European import, (after all, its not cornbread de muertos or tortilla de muertos) the basic ingredients, butter, cane sugar and wheat flour were not known in Meso-America prior to the conquest. However, the animal forms (these breads often resemble turtles, rabbits, and crocodiles) are suggestive of Aztec traditions, in which anthropomorphic figures were formed from amaranth seed dough and eaten. The Bread of the Dead dates back to the conquest years, when the Spaniards first arrived in Meso-America and were terrorized by their discovery of Aztecs rituals of human sacrifice. In one ceremony, they sacrificed a virgin by taking her heart and burying it in a clay pot full of amaranth; the leader of the ceremony would then bite the heart. In an attempt to eliminate this ritual, the Spaniards created bread with a heart shape, coated with red sugar simulating the blood. Their acceptance of this substitute marked the first time the Aztecs gave bread divine attributes, the beginning of a slow transition to Catholicism.
There have been many studies that seek to define the meaning of Pan de Muertos. Some show that, in an effort to keep with Indigenous roots, the four lines usually found atop the bread simulate the four cardinal points of the Aztec calendar, each of which, in turn, relates to one of their four principal deities. Another interpretation of the four lines, more in keeping with the teachings of the Catholic Church, is that they represent the bones of those who have passed away and the center represents the heart or skull.
Pan de Muerto/ Bread of the Dead
This bread is shaped into round loaves with strips of dough rolled out and attached to resemble bones.
• 1/2 cup butter
• 1/2 cup milk
• 1/2 cup water
• 5 to 5-1/2 cups flour
• 2 packages dry yeast
• Rind of one large orange
• 1 teaspoon salt
• 1 tablespoon whole anise seed
• 1/2 cup sugar
• 4 eggs
In a saucepan over medium flame, heat the butter, milk and water until very warm but not boiling. Meanwhile, take 1-1/2 cups flour and set the rest to the side. In a large mixing bowl, combine the 1-1/2 cups flour, yeast, salt, orange rind, anise seed and sugar. Beat in the warm liquid until well combined. Add the eggs and mix in one more cup of flour. Continue mixing more flour until dough is soft and not sticky at all. Knead over floured surface for ten minutes until smooth and elastic (you can use your mixer with the dough attachment).
Place dough in a lightly greased bowl, cover with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place until doubled the size ( 1-1/2 hours), punch the dough down and shape into round loaves, making long strips of dough top create “bones” and place them around the loaves to decorate, make a round ball do adorn the top of the bread, let these loaves rise covered with some kitchen rags for 1 hour.
Bake in a preheated 350° oven for 40 minutes. Remove from oven and spinkle or dunk them in a bowl of sugar immediately. (if you they cool down, sugar will not stick to the bread).
Serve with Mexican Hot Chocolate.