A Time to Honor and Celebrate our Beloved Deceased
Day of the Dead (November 1st) has become as popular as Halloween in many areas highly populated with Hispanics. Decorations for this seasonal festivity, such as skeletons and sugar skulls, papel picado banners, ornaments, party favors, masks and costumes seem to be everywhere—even Texas’ own HEB grocery stores decorate their reusable grocery bags with Day of the Dead images! Still, many remain unclear about the true origin of this holiday and what makes it so very special.
More than 25 years ago, I began my sojourns to Michoacán, Mexico to partake in Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebrations. I visited hallowed gravesites where families held all-night vigils for their dearly departed. They cleaned the graves, adorned them with photos and precious remembrances of their deceased and sometimes added gaily-painted sugar skulls and whimsical sugar sculptures depicting the dead in daily life. Abundant bouquets of golden marigolds, glimmering candles, wafts of copal incense and smoky wood fire, and heady aromas of the dearly departed’s favorite foods set the ambiance—all in hopes of alluring the deceased back to the living for one night. Not in a macabre or morbid way, though; Day of the Dead is a reverent celebration of life and remembrance.
Extended families gathered at the graveyards would invite me to sip mezcal from a bottle passed from person to person in a spirited holy communion, and to sample foods prepared by the loving hands of many women, who had, for days, spent hours grinding piquant chilies, seeds, spices and nuts into a rich, dark mole sauce. They’d also patted pyramids of corn tortillas and wrapped them in colorfully woven cloths and steamed mounds of savory chili-seasoned tamales. They’d also tended enormous pots filled with chunks of calabaza squash or pumpkin (with seeds left in for a sweet and crunchy bite) slowly caramelizing in a thick and spicy cinnamon-laced piloncillo (Mexican brown cone sugar) syrup—a most treasured confection eaten like candy.
Even in the graveyard, groups of women used enormous wooden spoons (almost as tall as the women themselves) to stir a huge cauldron of champurrado, a thick corn-masa gruel flavored with chocolate, cinnamon, vanilla and spice—a comforting drink in which to dunk pieces of pan de muerto (bread of the dead), the traditional sweet bread shaped like skulls and crossbones or a body ready for the coffin.
Since most of us do not have the helping hands, or the time, for recipes that take days to prepare, I have created my own version of a feast using traditional ingredients presented in a more contemporary way. Many of us have families spread across the country, and often our children barely even know their deceased relatives. Day of the Dead is a time to remember, honor and pay homage to our beloved deceased—to bring them back in mind and in memory!
Hosting a Day of the Dead Celebration
- Invite friends to honor and celebrate their beloved deceased. Ask that they each bring a candle, a photo of their departed loved one and a remembrance of something the person loved: a favorite hat, shawl, toy, or deck of cards, for example.
- Set up an altar (outside might be best) draped with colorful cloths and festooned with candles, bouquets of marigolds, sugar skulls, pan de muertos and Day of the Dead decorations. Hang papel picado banners with cutout Day of the Dead motifs. Let guests fill in the altar with what they brought.
- At some point during the gathering, have guests gather in a circle and hold hands around the altar for a moment of silence followed by words if anyone wishes to speak about, or simply mention the name of, their deceased.
- Serve pan de muertos for dunking into steaming cups of traditional champurrado, or into mugs of Mexican hot chocolate. Discs of stone-ground organic Taza Chocolate Mexicano (some are flavored with chilies and other spices for making Mexican-style hot chocolate or champurrado), can be found at local markets.
- Ask guests to bring a favorite recipe from their dearly departed: Grandma’s pimiento cheese, Tia’s best chocolate-chip cookies or Pedro’s pozole stew. Of course, I choose to celebrate with recipes inspired by Mexico.
Hints and Tips
- Visit local Mexican bakeries, such as La Mexicana on South First St., to purchase pan de muertos, cookies shaped like skulls and pumpkins, sugar skulls and whimsical sugar sculptures showing the dead in daily life.
- Visit local Mexican folk art stores, such as El Interior, Tesoros and The Turquoise Door for Day of the Dead decorations, banners, ornaments and treasures. Import stores, such as World Market, Pottery Barn, Crate and Barrel and Pier One also carry decorations, as does HEB.
- Buy lots of locally grown marigolds at farmers markets or florists.
- Purchase homemade tamales at farmers markets, Mexican markets or local restaurants.
- Purchase El Milagro’s Casera (homestyle corn) tostadas and tostada chips (available at Central Market or at El Milagro’s tortilleria on East Sixth St.), or make your own.
- Serve an enticing and colorful punch so that guests can serve themselves. A large punch bowl serves as a striking centerpiece, too!
- Pass around a bottle of mezcal or tequila.
- Light a fire in a fire pit for ambiance.
- Burn copal incense.