As opposed to celebrating All Hallows Even (Hallowe'en), Mexico honors its dead on November 2nd (following All Saints Day on November 1st). My first year in the D.F. I was surprised by a knock on the door on día de los muertos. I opened to see a group of kids saying "¿Me dá para mi calaverita?" which very roughly translates into "Will you give me something for my little skull?" It sounds gruesome in English, morbidly twisted in translation, unfortunately! The children were asking for money, which would be used to purchase food and drink to be consumed at the graves of deceased family members. Graveyards on this day shake off their lugubrious attitudes and play host to festive gatherings of people celebrating the lives of those who have parted to the más allá (the beyond).
Día de los muertos dates back to pre-Hispanic times, but with the Spanish conquest and the influence of other European cultures and Catholicism, the holiday took on new forms and traditions. Though it is recognized and celebrated in other Latin American countries, arguably the most colorful, rich, and lavish imagery and lore reside in Mexico. Día de los muertos is one of the most emblematic days of that nation's cultural calendar.
Among the most identifiable symbols of the day of the dead are the breathtaking multihued and intricately patterned lithograph calacas (skulls) and wreaths of Mexican marigolds (the cempasúchil flower), whose golden petals represent the sun and its illuminating rays showing the dead the way home.
Food is a central part of the holiday. Candy skulls, embossed with the names of loved ones who have passed and pan de muerto are traditionally made in the days leading up to November 2nd. Pan de muerto is a sweet, soft bread, coated with sugar and made fragrant with the beautiful aroma of orange blossom water. During its preparation, part of the dough is reserved and used to decorate the loaves with shapes echoing those of human bones. Different versions exist, with breads showcasing flora, fauna, and mythical creatures as décor. Even if you won't be rapping your knuckles on stranger's doors on behalf of your calaverita, this is a festive and curious bread that's worth trying.
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About the author: María del Mar Sacasa is a recipe developer, food stylist, and author of the food blog High Heels & Frijoles. Behind her girly façade lurks a truck driver's appetite. Read about her cravings and suffer through her occasional rants on Twitter @HHandFrijoles.