What Is Day of the Dead, Anyway?
Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is a beautiful marriage of whimsy and spookiness. It's a holiday that marries the bold, colorful liveliness of flowers and food with skulls and candles, lending an air of celebration and joy to a time of remembrance and loss. It is a time to rejoice for the lives of those who have passed, and honor them by preparing the creature comforts they once enjoyed.
A Little Day of the Dead History
Dia de los Muertos is said to have originally honored Mictecacihuatl, the so-called “lady of the dead” and Aztec queen of the underworld who guarded the bones of the dead. As Aztec influences fused with Spanish and Catholic traditions, Day of the Dead became part of All Souls' Day celebrations, falling on the first and second days of November, respectively.
The "Ofrenda," or "Offering"
The "ofrenda," or "offering,” is an altar set with the departed's favorite foods as well as traditional Day of the Dead fare. Mexican families take great care in building these altars, whatever their size. You will see ofrendas spread across an entire front yard or on a small nightstand. The ofrenda will traditionally have a tablecloth, candles, flowers, sugar skulls, and Mexican paper decorations called papel picado, which are used to create an arch or border around the table. They are very easy to make with a few templates and some tissue paper, and are usually decorated with images of flowers and skulls.
It is believed that the spirits are very thirsty from their long journey, so a glass of water is always included on the table, along with traditional fare like tamales, pan de muertos, and fresh fruit.
It is also traditional to include photos of those you are honoring in the center of the altar. If you don’t include photos, it is assumed you are honoring all of your ancestors. Some choose to opt out of the pictures so that everyone can feel included in the offering -- even those visiting the home can use the altar to honor their loved ones as well.
Day of the Dead Decorations
Most traditionally, marigolds are used, as they represent death; it is said that their fragrance helps guide the spirits back home. If you can’t find marigolds, other brightly colored flowers or pom-poms will work as well.
Candles light the way to the table, so use as many as you can. Some use candles depicting the saints and the Virgin of Guadalupe, but white candles work nicely to offset the rest of the colorful Day of the Dead table.
Pan de Muertos, or "Bread of the Dead"
Pan de muertos is an egg-based dough similar to challah or brioche that is molded to look like a mound of bones or a skull (see photo above), and is a very traditional symbolic Day of the Dead food.
Decorating Sugar Skulls
Calaveritas, or small sugar skulls, are made all over Mexico in the month leading up to the holiday. Mexicans decorate sugar skulls with much the same enthusiasm as Americans have for Halloween pumpkin carving and decorations. Some artisans still make these by hand, forming the sugar and painting intricate designs on them with colored frosting. They are a joy to pick out at the markets, as each one is unique. Families often keep the skulls from years past, like one might save Christmas ornaments, and add to the collection each year.