Friday, November 1, 2013


The Day of the Dead is a holiday that started in Mexico and Central America.  It's actually celebrated for THREE days, and not just for one.  Which, in my opinion, makes it a really good kind of holiday.  The first of the three days is All Hallows' Eve, also called Halloween in places like Europe and the U.S.  The second day is All Saints' Day, and the third day is All Souls' Day.

These three days are observed by Catholics and some other denominations as a way of remembering loved ones who have died.  But in Mexico, there are very colorful, special ways of celebrating them.  And the reason for this is because the ancient Aztecs used to have a festival that was dedicated to Mictecacihuatl, who was the goddess of the underworld.  Her job was to watch over the bones of the dead.  The Aztec festival was in the ninth month of their calendar, which was about the beginning of August, and it lasted for an entire month.

The Train in the History Museum of Folk Art

After the Spanish brought Christianity to Mexico, the Aztec festival got combined with the Catholic days for honoring people who had died.  But a lot of the original native ways of celebrating the holiday are still around today.

A household altar, decorated with marigolds.
Photo:  IxTah

So here's what happens during the three days of remembering the dead.  At midnight on October 31, people believe that the gates of heaven are opened, and all the spirits of the children who have died come down to earth to be with their families again for a day.  These children are called the angelitos, or "little angels."  Then on November 2, the adult spirits come back for a visit.

These sugar coffins are toys for angelitos.
When you pull the string, the skeleton pops up.

Beautiful altars have already been made in each home to welcome the dead.  These altars, or ofrendas, are decorated with candles, wild marigolds (cempasúchil), cock's comb flowers, plus piles of fruit, peanuts, tortillas, and other foods such as turkey mole.  There is also hot cocoa, water, and bottles of soda for the souls to drink after their long journey.  The angelitos will get toys and candies, and the adult spirits will have offerings of cigarettes, mezcal, and their favorite foods.

Photo:  AlejandroLinaresGarcia

On November 2, families often go to the cemetery to share a meal in spirit with their relatives and friends who have died.  They spend time there cleaning and decorating the gravestones and building ofrendas.  They hope the departed ones will hear the prayers and comments that are made about them, and that they will watch over the living during the coming year.  

One important tradition of the Day of the Dead is the making of Pan de los Muertos ("Bread of the Dead").  This bread is soft and sweet and round like a bun.  Sometimes it is decorated with dough strips shaped like bones.  The bones are in a circle to show the circle of life.  Also, there may be a baked teardrop to represent sadness.  In some regions, this bread is eaten for weeks before the actual holiday comes.  Then during the Day of the Dead observance, it is eaten along with the departed person's favorite foods.

The most famous image of this holiday is probably the decorated sugar skulls that are sold everywhere.  The skulls are made of something called alfinique, which is a paste made of powdered sugar and egg whites.  This paste can be molded into different shapes, but the most usual shape is a skull.  The sugar skulls are not really meant to be eaten.  They are meant to be offerings for the visiting spirits.

Etching by José Guadalupe Posada, made between 1910 and 1913

Back in 1910 or so, a Mexican printmaker named José Guadalupe Posada made a zinc etching called La Calavera Catrina, which means something like "Elegant Skull."  This image, which became very famous, shows a lady skeleton wearing only a fancy hat like upper-class European women wore in those days.  Posada meant his etching as a satirical comment on Mexicans who liked to imitate the ways of the European aristocracy.  Ever since the etching was published, the Calavera Catrina has become an icon of the Day of the Dead, and many skeletons are made with fancy hats and dresses.

This is Mom's Day of the Dead doggy skeleton.
I don't know why he has a turtle in his mouth.
Maybe that's what doggy skeletons do.

If you want to make your own sugar skulls, there are websites that will tell you how to do that.  Also, you can find recipes for baking Pan de Muertos, which I personally think would be pretty yummy to eat. Mom ate some when she lived in Mexico, and she said it really was good.  I wish she had saved some for me, but she said that was 40 years ago, and even if she had saved me a piece, it might be stale by now!


  1. my mom makes day of the dead bread every year. but she and the daddy are stingy and don't share. I think that's wrong. People should share their food with me. (But we won't talk about me sharing my food. clearly *that's* wrong.) it smells really yummy and has anise in it and an orange glaze on it. it also has orange zest in it, which is clearly another sign that it was meant to be shared with me! I don't really know how to make it clearer than that.

    --Zest! superstar in hunger

    1. Zest, you are totally right. You should get to eat all the bread. I don't know what is wrong with your mom, but clearly she is confused about some important issues!
      Your friend, Piper