Día de los Muertos is “Day of the Dead” in Mexico, coming right on the heels of Halloween. Festivities are abundant in death. The typical Halloween festivities have death as something to be feared. But in the Día de Muertos, death — or at least the memories of those who have died — is something to be celebrated. It is one of the biggest holidays in Mexico.
During the time of the Aztecs, a month long summer celebration was overseen by the goddess Mictecacihuatl, ‘the Lady of the Dead.’ When Spain conquered the Aztecs, Catholicism became the dominant religion and the customs became intertwined with the Christian commemoration of All Saints' Day on Nov. 1. Sounds not unlike what had been done with Samhain.
Specifics of the celebration vary with each region, but one of the most common customs is the making of elaborate altars to welcome departed spirits come back home during this time. Vigils are held. Families often go to cemeteries to fix up the graves of their departed relatives. Festivities also include traditional foods such as sugar skulls and pan de muerto (bread of the dead), usually concealing a miniature skeleton.
Before the day happens, an area of the house is cleaned up and the furniture removed to make room for the altar. The altar consists at a minimum of a covered table, and usually a few crates or boxes are added to it and covered to create open shelves and other raised display areas. The coverings used can vary from plain to vibrantly colored oil cloth. The altar is then set up with the appropriate ofrendas (offerings). The offerings placed on the altar usually consist of a wash bowl, basin, razors, soap, plus other items the traveling spirit can use to clean-up after the journey. Pictures of the deceased are also placed on the altar as well as personal belongings for each person and any other offerings the deceased may enjoy such as a pack of cigarettes or a bottle of tequila. Candles are used to help light the way for the spirits along with other decorative items such as papel picado (tissue paper cut-outs) wreaths, crosses, and flowers. Certain Dia de los Muertos dishes are also placed on the altar to help feed and nourish them too. Some of these offerings can consist of the four main elements of nature — earth, wind, water, and fire. These are represented by movable or light-weight items such as tissue paper cut-outs (wind,) a bowl of water, candles (fire) and food (crops, earth.)
To have your own Day of the Dead, here is a recipe to make your own the Pan de Muerto.
1/2 cup butter
1 1/4 cup water
6 cups flour
2 packets dry yeast
1 teaspoon salt
3 teaspoons whole anise seed
2 tablespoons orange zest
3/4 cup sugar
4 large eggs
Glaze (see below)
Bring all ingredients to room temperature (except for the water which should be very warm) before beginning.
In a large bowl, mix together butter, sugar, anise, salt and 1/2 cup of the flour. In a seperate bowl combine the eggs and the water. Add the egg/water mixture to the first mixture and add in another 1/2 cup of the flour. Add in the yeast and another 1/2 cup of flour. Continue to add the flour 1 cup at a time until a dough forms.
Knead on a floured surface for about 1 minute. Cover with a slightly damp dishcloth and let rise in a warm area for 1 hour and 30 minutes.
Bring out dough and punch it down. Remove about 1/4 of it and use it to make bone shapes to drape across the loaf (see below.) Or divide the dough into smaller pieces to create other bone shapes. Let the shaped dough rise for 1 more hour.
Bake in a 350 degree oven for 30 minutes for smaller loaves and up to 45 minutes for larger loaves.
GLAZES (After glaze is applied you may decorate with additional colored sugar.)
Bring to a boil- 3/4 cup sugar and 1/2 cup fresh orange juice. Brush on bread and then sift some additional sugar over the top.
Mix 3 tablespoons orange juice concentrate and 1/3 cup sugar with 2 egg whites. Brush on bread during the last 10 minutes of cooking.
Bring to a boil- 1/4 cup piloncillo, 1/4 cup sugar, 2/3 cup cranberry juice and 2 tablespoons orange zest. Brush on bread after bread has cooled.
BONES: The most common bone decorations are very simple. Sometimes it's just a matter of forming ball shapes and pressing them into the loaf in a line. You could also take a piece of dough, roll it into a long cylinder and place a ball at each end. You can get much more detailed if you like, but even a slighly "knobby" looking loaf will get the idea across.