by Vera Cala
"Yanqui's" typically celebrate Halloween, but south of the border, the biggest celebrations of the year follow Halloween and are known as the Days of the Dead.
November 1 and 2 are the Days of the Dead, when the souls of the departed return to join their families and friends in the land of the living. It is a joyous time, without the tears which can make the return pathway slippery. Skeletons, skulls and red devils are depicted happily cavorting. Even the holiday foods, the sugar candies and the breads, are molded to look like "La Calavera"—the skeleton of death.
In preparation for the Days of the Dead, and in anticipation of our own Halloween festivities, we present here a series of "factoids" on this traditional Mexican holiday. We invite you—and your dearly departed—to join us as we celebrate Los Dias de Los Muertos...Vamanos, hombres!
Day of the Dead, or el Dia de los Muertos, is a happy celebration in Mexico. That's when the souls of the dearly departed return home to the world of the living. All of them. From Heaven, Hell and Purgatory, they descend upon their families and for two days, November 1 and 2, they rejoice together.
Even though a family is saddened by a loved one's departure, they do not cry on the Days of the Dead. The elders say the path back to the living world must not be made slippery by tears.
There are actually two Days of the Dead: November 1 and November 2, and the tradition dates back to the Aztec civilization. Coincidentally or not, these days are also the Catholic holy days of All Saints' and All Souls' days. In Mexican culture, the lines between ancient folklore and the customs of the Spanish Conquistadors frequently blur.
The first Day of the Dead, on November 1, is usually reserved for the children, for honoring the souls of the little angelitos. The next day, the adults are remembered. You will see both young and old in the night's rituals, holding vigils in the town cemetery. Everywhere, round loaves, dusted with colored sugar, are shared with both the living and the dead.
Preparations for the most important holidays of the year, the Days of the Dead, begin weeks in advance. Statues, candies, breads and other gifts known to please Los Muertos fill the marketplaces, and are consumed by the living with as much fervor as we do our own Christmas goods. Both the spirits and the economy get a boost at this time of year.
The Aztecs believed that death was but a portal to other existences—a natural, albeit mystical, occurrence. Families paid homage to their dead, and on those days when the living and dead were reunited, they welcomed them back with great respect and reverence. This is the basis for the Days of the Dead, even today.
Calavera—the skull or skeleton—is the number one symbol for the Days of the Dead. But it is not presented to terrorize. Instead, the calavera represents the playfulness of the Dead, as they mimic the Living and frolic amongst us.
La Muerte is 'the bald one' of the Days of the Dead. You see La Muerte in baked goods and sugar candies—in 'calaveras de azucar'—as it is widely known that the Dead love sugar.
Made from a sugar paste cast in molds, the candy skulls of the Days of the Dead are decorated with colorful foil eyes and icing. Look for your name—Pedro, Juan, Sarina, Luisa, Alejandro, Tomas, Gabriela—if it's not there, we can make one for you in an instant.
On the Days of the Dead, savor the sugar skulls, bite down and crush them in your teeth. Enjoy the sweet taste of these, La Muerte's candies, for one day, she will feast on you, too.
The sugar skulls of the Days of the Dead are stacked in huge pyramids throughout the open markets of Mexico. They are considered gifts, tokens of love, and besides being eaten by all ages, they adorn home alters and grave sights.
"Give me bread and sugar to help me on my journey to the next level," say the Dead before burial. The bread of the dead, pan de muerto, is sweet and baked expressly for the Days of the Dead holiday. Bring some home to your mother, serve some to your guests. See the pretty colored sugar on top? Notice those bumps—they remind us of the bones of the Dead.
On the Days of the Dead, you will see the Devil, too, as he plays and frolics with the Skeleton. He came to the holiday from the Catholics, who tell us to be saintly or be banished to Hell or Purgatory.
"We must remember them", say the elders about the Dead. "They want us, they love us. See how that flame danced high before it died? It is the Dead, letting us know we are not to forget them. Look over there—that glass just tipped over. No one of the Living touched it. It is how the Dead speak to us."
The Dead are full of Life. We see it in the statues, toys and trinkets of el Dia De Los Muertos. Miniature skeletons sporting mohawks and big grins play in rock bands. Paper mache skulls bear pink flowers for eyes and green lizards on their brows. Wooden skeletons on rods dance wildly, with arms and legs flailing, whenever you pull their string. The calaveras sing, dance, laugh—they even ride on merry-go-rounds and drive rickety wooden trucks. And of course, they drink pulque, a fermented drink made from cactus.
Picture the bride and groom—aren't they handsome in their black suit and white dress! Look closer, though, this happy couple is of the Dead, with beaming grins on their skulls and boney arms jutting from their sleeves. On the Day of the Dead, everything is happy.
Looking like a tomb in the catacombs of Rome, the Mexican bakery's shelves are stacked with sugar skulls for the Day of the Dead. From a few inches to life size, these skulls stare back with gleaming foil eyes of red, green, blue, magenta...Purple, green and turquoise icing paints highlights on the nose sockets and cheek bones. without the lips of the living, the teeth protrude eerily from the jawbones.
If you were in Mexico right now, preparing for the Days of the Dead, you would gather your children and teach them to prepare the ofrenda, the home altar. "Mira, muchachos, bring the pan de muerto here for your ancestors, they are hungry. Offer them a sugar skull, so they know you remember them."
Check out Inside My Skull for artistic sugar skulls in the Days of the Dead tradition.
This page originally published as part of the electronic Gourmet Guide between 1994 and 1998.
Modified February 2007
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