Have you ever had a picnic in the graveyard? At night? With lots of candles and a mariachi band? If so, you’ve probably been lucky enough to celebrate Día de los muertos, or Day of the Dead, an important cultural holiday celebrated in Mexico and some regions in Latin America, and even in some places in the United States!
Día de los muertos is the day people remember and honor their dead ancestors and relatives. It takes place every November 1 and 2 and has been celebrated for over 2000 years. Mesoamerican civilizations all shared a common belief in life after death: when people died, they didn’t cease to exist. Their soul continued to live in the afterlife. This belief caused the ancients to celebrate death rather than fear it.
Today, Día de los muertos is a day to let relatives know they are not forgotten. One of the ways the living show their love for their deceased family is to create ofrendas either at the grave of their relative, or in their home. The word ofrenda means “offering” and is an altar dedicated to, and decorated for, the dead. Some might be simple, while others quiet elaborate, requiring days to assemble and consisting of several tiers of collected items.
Ofrendas generally include candles, incense, salt and water (for the dead who might be thirsty on their journey), and some favorite items of the dead person like clothing, food, or toys if the dead person is a child. Decorated sugar skulls, often with the name of the dead person written somewhere on it, are also common items included in the ofrenda. Bright orange marigolds are thought to attract spirits to their ofrendas and are used liberally in decorating.
Many Día de los muertos celebrations include a procession through the streets. Rather than watching from the sidelines, like you would a parade, everyone is encouraged to join. Some people bring photos of their deceased family members to carry along the procession. This is where you might see people dressed up in sugar skull make-up and Catrina costumes.
Catrina is a character based on “La Calavera Catrina,” a 1910 etching by Mexican printmaker Jose Guadalupe Posada that depicts a skeleton in a fancy, flowered hat. While the symbol started off as a mockery of native Mexicans who were abandoning their culture in favor of European traditions, Catrina is now a popular icon during Día de los muertos.
Día de los muertos is a holiday filled with joyous sights, sounds and food; a time to feel connected to ancestors who have passed on, and to celebrate the family bond that lasts beyond this life.
One of the fun treats enjoyed with the Dia de los Muertos celebration is Pan de Muerto, or Day of the Dead bread. Make some of this sweet bread at home and celebrate Dia de los Muertos with loving thoughts of your departed family.
Pan de Muerto (Day of the Dead Bread)
1/2 cup granulated sugar, plus more for sprinkling
1/2 teaspoon fine salt
1 teaspoon anise seed
1/2 ounce (2 packets) active dry yeast
1/2 cup whole milk
1/2 cup water
8 tablespoons unsalted butter (1 stick)
4 large eggs
4 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting the work surface
Vegetable oil, for oiling the bowl
1 egg yolk beaten with 2 teaspoons water
1. Combine the sugar, salt, anise seed, and yeast in a small mixing bowl. Heat the milk, water, and butter in a small saucepan over medium heat until the butter is just melted; do not allow it to boil. Add the milk mixture to the dry mixture and beat well with a wire whisk.
2. Stir in the eggs and 1 1/2 cups of the flour and beat well. Add the remaining flour, little by little, stirring well with a wooden spoon until the dough comes together.
3. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured wooden board and knead it until it’s smooth, elastic, and no longer sticky, about 9 to 10 minutes. Place in a lightly oiled bowl, cover with a clean kitchen towel, and allow the dough to rise in a warm area until it has doubled in size, about 1 1/2 hours.
4. Heat the oven to 350°F and arrange a rack in the middle. Punch down the dough and divide it into 2 pieces. Cut 3 small (about 1-ounce) balls from each half and mold them into skull-and-bones shapes. Shape the large pieces of dough into round loafs and place the skull-and-bones on top. Place the breads on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and let them rise another hour.
5. Brush the loaves with the egg yolk mixture and bake. Halfway through baking, about 20 minutes, remove the loaves from the oven and brush again with the egg wash and sprinkle lightly with granulated sugar. Return to the oven and bake until the loaves are golden brown and sound hollow when tapped, about another 20 minutes.