Like so many Americans, the first time we saw our Mexican neighbors’ calaveras and skeleton sculptures on altars for Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), we shuddered. Despite the cheerful colors and smiles on their faces, it all seemed so gruesome! So we chatted with a couple of experts, and have come to understand – and really admire - the spirit of honoring, celebration, and camaraderie that the holiday embraces. Here’s the scoop, care of wonderful Wikipedia.com.
Day of the Dead (Spanish: Día de los Muertos) is a Mexican holiday when it is believed the gates of heaven are opened at midnight on October 31st and the spirits of the deceased are allowed to reunite with their families. The holiday focuses on gatherings of family and friends to pray for and remember friends and family members who have died. It is particularly celebrated in Mexico, where it attains the quality of a National Holiday. The celebration takes place on November 1st and 2nd, in connection with the Catholic holidays of All Saints’ Day (November 1) and All Souls’ Day (November 2). Traditions connected with the holiday include building private altars called ofrendas honoring the deceased using sugar skulls, marigolds, and the favorite foods and beverages of the departed and visiting graves with these as gifts.
Scholars trace the origins of the modern Mexican holiday to indigenous observances dating back hundreds of years and to an Aztec festival dedicated to a goddess called Mictecacihuatl. In Brazil, Dia de Finados is a public holiday that many Brazilians celebrate by visiting cemeteries and churches. In Spain, there are festivals and parades, and, at the end of the day, people gather at cemeteries and pray for their dead loved ones. Similar observances occur elsewhere in Europe, and similarly themed celebrations appear in many Asian and African cultures.
Our friend Tami Carija, who owns the wonderful Mexican import shop Luna Rustica, shared a little about Catrinas and sugar skulls.
Two of the most notable images of day of the dead celebration are catrinas and sugar skulls. Catrinas, meaning “elegant skulls,” are skeleton figures dressed in elaborate clothing with big hats. Sugar skulls are creatively decorated confections of sugar and egg whites which are exchanged as gifts or incorporated into ofrendas.
Luna Rustica will be celebrating Dia de Los Muertos at it’s downtown location (895 Monterey St. San Luis Obispo, 93401) with an ofrenda displaying all the traditional altar elements as well as a number of beautiful hand picked catrinas from Mexico. A new Luna Rustica tradition also began this year with the decorating of sugar skulls by friends and family in honor of particular passed loved ones, and are on display at the shop in honor of this wonderful celebration.
During the Day of the Dead festivities in the first two days of November, graves are decorated with flowers and offerings of food and drink in honor of the departed, including this pan de muertos, a yeasty, sweet egg bread flavored with anise. This recipe for “dead bread” is care of CHOW.com.
- 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 (1 stick) unsalted butter
- 4 large eggs
- 4 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 egg yolk beaten with 2 teaspoons water
Combine sugar, salt, anise seed, and yeast in a small mixing bowl. Heat 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.
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.
Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured wooden board and knead until it is 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.
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 balls of dough into round loaf shapes 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.
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 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.