The Day of the Dead, known in Spanish as el Dia de los Muertos, is a two-day holiday which honors the memory of the deceased. With the summer behind us and the winter approaching, it is believed that the veil between the living and the dead becomes penetrable. The gates of heaven are believed to be opened and the spirits of the deceased are temporarily reunited with their living loved ones. Traditionally, November 1 is when you welcome the souls of children that have passed away, known as Dia de los Inocentes (Day of the Innocents) or Dia de los Angelitos (Day of the Little Angels). On November 2, the spirits of the adults come down to take part in the festivities that have been prepared for them.
Rituals celebrating the lives of deceased relatives have been part of Latin American cultures since the time of the Aztecs. Festivities would last for an entire month, during which time people would honor the goddess referred to as the 'Lady of the Dead.' When Spanish conquistadors arrived in Mexico and forcibly turned the country Catholic, the parameters of the holiday were altered. The celebration now coincides with the Catholic holidays of All Saints' Day on November 1 and All Souls' Day on November 2.
Today, this holiday focuses on bringing together family and friends to celebrate those who have passed. Relatives visit graves and build altars and shrines in their home or at the gravesites. The altars are adorned with offerings, or ofrendas, of their favorite foods, drinks and other items commemorating their lives. Gravestones are decorated with flowers and altar candles and family members gather to remember those they have lost.
The making of sugar figures can be traced back to Palermo, Italy, where figurines were made out of sugar as religious decorations. As far back as the mid-18th century, Mexicans began combining Spanish Catholic beliefs with their native Mesoamerican rituals. During this time period, sugar skulls became a popular representation of el Dia de los Muertos. By the mid-19th century, it was common for skulls to bear the name of the recipient across the forehead.
Today, the image of the sugar skull is the most widely recognized icon associated with the Day of the Dead. These beautifully painted skulls are full of intricate designs and bright colors. The calacas and calaveras (skeletons and skulls), are created in all shapes and sizes during the holiday: as parade masks, dolls and in various types of candies. Each unique design represents a departed soul.
In recent years, the traditions of the Day of the Dead have spread into North America, particularly into communities with large Mexican and Latin American populations. As a result, over the last decade, the image of the sugar skull has gained in popularity in the United States. Many Halloween decorations and costumes now feature the icon and the festive image has largely replaced the conventional spooky skulls of the past.
Celebrating the Day of the Dead
Much planning goes into the festivities that take place during this two day remembrance. Families put a lot of thought into the foods, beverages and other offerings that they present in honor of their loved ones. There are many recipes that are traditionally prepared during el Dia de los Muertos.
Pan de Muerto is the bread that is prepared and eaten during the Day of the Dead. It is the food which is most closely associated with the holiday and is a vital part of each family's altar. It is most commonly a round, sweet bread that is flavored with orange blossoms and decorated with shapes suggestive of bones, often either sprinkled with sugar or sesame seeds. In the Catholic religion, the bread signifies the body of Christ, which adds to the importance of bread for this holiday.
Mole is an extremely intricate and time-consuming Mexican dish featuring anywhere from twenty to fifty ingredients. The complexity of the recipe makes it the perfect offering to represent the importance of the holiday. Often served with enchiladas, meats and vegetables, this rich sauce typically contains a mixture of chiles, nuts, seeds and vegetables.
Calabaza en Tacha is a candied pumpkin recipe made from sugar pumpkins. Slices of the pumpkin are cooked in a syrup made from piloncillo (a raw, unrefined sugar) and cinnamon. Once cool, the dish is most often served as a dessert.
Champurrado is a traditional cornstarch-based Mexican and Central American hot drink. Made with Mexican chocolate, milk, and masa for thickening, it is thicker than most hot chocolate. Champurrado is served to warm the souls that have made the journey back to the land of the living.
Marigolds are prominently displayed during el Dia de Los Muertos festivities. These fragrant flowers are a symbol of death, referred to as the 'flower of the dead.' Flowers represent the fragility of life and it is believed that the vibrant color and scent of the marigolds guide the spirits to their altars. The beautiful yellow and orange blossoms are fashioned into elaborate arches for display on graves. In some instances, people leave a trail of marigolds from their front door to their loved one's grave, so that the deceased may easily find their way back home again.
Dia de los Muertos commemorates the lives of the deceased with food, drink, parties and activities that the dead enjoyed during their lives. The holiday recognizes death as a natural part of the circle of life, a piece of the cycle, intertwined with birth, childhood, and adulthood. On el Dia de los Muertos, the dead are reunited a part of the community, awakened from their eternal sleep to share memories and celebrations with their loved ones.