One of Mexico’s most important religious holidays is celebrated on All Saint’s Day (Nov 1) and All Soul’s Day (Nov 2): Dia de los Muertos (sometimes called Dia de los Fieles Difuntos) – Day of the Dead. Traditionally, November 1st honors deceased children and November 2nd honors deceased adults.
Far from being a morbid event, Day of Dead emphasizes remembrance of past lives and celebration of the continuity of life. This acknowledgement of life’s continuity has roots which go back to some of Mexico’s oldest civilizations: Olmec, Zapotec, Maya, Purepecha. The Aztecs, too, celebrated Day of the Dead, although earlier (August) on the current calendar.
Day of the Dead is celebrated passionately throughout Mexico, and especially so in smaller provincial towns and cities.
One of the culinary highlights of the season is “Pan de Muerto” (Bread of the Dead) which is a semi-sweet sugar-coated bread made from eggs and infused with natural citrus fruit flavors. It’s traditionally taken with hot chocolate that has been mixed with cinnamon and makes for a perfect blend on a chilly November evening.
Planning for Day of the Dead can be done days, weeks or even a whole year in advance, during which time family members will gather ofrendas, offerings, to the dead. Toys are usually offered for deceased children and bottles of tequila, mezcal, or atole for deceased adults. Trinkets, or the deceased’s favorite food or candy, may also be offered on the grave.
During the celebratory period, it’s traditional for families to visit the cemeteries where their loved ones are buried to clean and to decorate the graves with the offerings. Offerings are also put in homes, usually with foods such as caramelized pumpkin, Pan de Muerto and small sugar skulls which are sometimes engraved with the deceased person’s name. Decorations usually include orange marigold flowers called cempaxochitl, or Flor de Muerto (“Flower of the Dead”).
Day of the Dead is a holiday that attracts a certain fascination for visitors from abroad. Celebrations in the city of Oaxaca and the town of Patzcuaro are particularly well attended by foreign visitors; early bookings for local accommodation are essential if you want to experience Day of the Dead at either of these places.
The precise ceremonies, offerings and customs for Day of the Dead celebrations vary by region and town. However, the fundamental traditions described here are echoed all over Mexico and a visit to a cemetery, where the graves are bursting with color and decorations, and the lives of those past are lovingly remembered by those present,is a worth while inclusion to your experiences of Mexican culture during this time of year.
November 2nd is an Official Public Holiday in Mexico.
Bread and Other Offerings on Day of the Dead
The first and second days of November mark one of the most important cultural and religious festivals on Mexico’s events calendar: Day of the Dead – a festival that emphasizes remembrance of past lives and celebration of the continuity of life. Traditionally, November 1st honors deceased children and November 2nd honors deceased adults.
An important feature of the festivities is the creation of an ofrenda – an offering – that usually manifests as an alter in Catholic homes; placing upon this photographs of the remembered dead, accompanied by a number of traditional foods and decorations, including caramelized pumpkin, small sugar skulls, and orange marigold flowers called cempaxochitl, or Flor de Muerto.
Another traditional food oftentimes found on ofrendas is Pan de Muerto: literally translated, Bread of the Dead; colloquially, ‘Dead Bread’. This bread is sold by most bakers (and all supermarkets) only in the weeks leading up to Day of the Dead. As of November 3rd, the bread disappears, save for a few loaves that might linger.
Like Easter Eggs, or Turkey Dinner at Thanksgiving, Dead Bread is a treat that people look forward to and miss when its season passes. Of course, this passing of availability is the essential ingredient that creates its lasting allure: another example of how scarcity can make things attractive and endows them with some intrinsic value.
Dead Bread is like any other bread, except that it has a few treats added into the mixture which serve to make it special. The generous amounts of butter employed in its making, accompanied by a citrus glaze and a good helping of sugar crystals dusted on top make this particular loaf a high-calorie sweet feast – that, when fresh, also happens to melt deliciously on the tongue.
A remarkable feature of the bread is the presence of “bones”, formed from the same mixture, and laid over the dome-shaped dough. These give the bread a somewhat macabre look, but rest well with the theme it represents.
The recipe, that can be easily found online, is quite simple. The succulent citrusy undertones are bestowed by the bread’s glaze, that is made using the zest from a fresh orange, and its juice.
The bread is best when taken on the same day it was baked, accompanied with a cup of hot chocolate, made the Mexican way (add ground cinnamon to the chocolate and whisk). One of the long-standing traditions of people who attend the graves of their loved ones now deceased, is to take Pan de Muerto and drink Mexican hot chocolate; usually after dark, when the cool November temperatures begin to make their presence felt in the night air.
Bread of the Dead is one of those Mexican foods which many foreigners have yet to try. If you live in Mexico, then you’ll know (or come to know) about Day of the Dead and taste the delicious bread that accompanies this important festival. If you are visiting Mexico, you’ll be able to obtain Pan de Muerto from baker’s shelves as of early October each year.
Thanks for reading, and Happy Halloween and Day of the Dead.
Stewart Rogers USA-South Carolina