Decorated sugar skulls, intricate altars, and colorful tissue paper. It seems like every year there is a growing interest in the traditional Mexican holiday Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead. So what exactly is Día de los Muertos? Well for one thing it is not "Mexican Halloween" even though the two holidays overlap on Halloween. It is also not a new flash-in-the-pan insignificant date used as a marketing ploy to sell margaritas and Mexican beer (looking at you Cinco de Mayo).
Día de los Muertos is a centuries-old tradition that celebrates the life of loved ones who have passed away. It started in Mexico but is celebrated all over Latin America. The tradition of welcoming souls of deceased relatives for a quick reunion blends Aztec beliefs with Catholic traditions.
"It is a moment to grieve for those you lost," said Mauricio Navarro, the organizers of Dallas' inaugural Día de los Muertos parade that happened last year. The parade is cancelled this year due to the pesky pandemic, but with the help of local businesses you can celebrate the holiday safely and soundly from home with the help of a few items.
Along with the skull-painted faces, the ofrenda - or temporary altar - is one of the most recognizable symbols of Day of the Dead. You can easily construct an altar at home to commemorate the life of loved ones. Altars should include personalized elements like photos of your loved ones, their favorite food, drink, candy, and knickknacks, along with traditional offerings like flowers, candles, and incense. Bright orange Marigolds traditionally adorn altars because the Aztecs considered them a sacred flower. It was believed their pungent aroma would help lure the souls of the dead back to their loved ones.
According to Navarro, each altar should include one item from each of the four elements of matter. Candles represent fire. Papel de Picado (more on that later) represents wind. Water represents, well water. And food represents earth.
Pan de Muerto (Bread of the Dead)
Speaking of food, we all know that the hallmark of any great cultural celebration is great food. Día de los Muertos is no exception. Pan de Muerto - literally bread of the dead - is most often associated with the holiday. The spongy, sugar-dusted loaf of bread is arranged in a circle to represent the circle of life.
The bread is typically placed on the altar of loved ones to provide them nourishment while they visit the land of the living. Historians trace the tradition back to the Aztecs who would place food on the tombs of the deceased as an offering.
Ovens in Mexican bakeries across the metroplex will be full of the sweet bread leading up to the end of October. Perhaps the best spot in town to pick up a few loaves of Pan de Muerto is Maroches Bakery in Oak Cliff. Be sure to arrive early as they typically sell out of bread daily. While you are there, you can check out the massive altar the folks there construct every year.
Papel picado is a traditional Mexican folk art that involves cutting intricate patterns into brightly colored tissue paper, then stringing them together in a banner. In Mexico, the banner of colorful flags are strung across streets, squares, and rooms to celebrate all types of occasions such as weddings, birthdays, Christmas and Easter.
During Day of the Dead it is incorporated into altars to represent the wind element (told you we would get back to that later). The color yellow represents life, purple represents death, and orange represents the union between life and death.
Traditionally artisans create the decorations by punching designs into pieces of tissue paper or plastic with a small chisel. If you do not have that type of time, head to your nearest mercado to pick up a banner or two.
Calavera de Azucar (Sugar Skulls)
Sugar skulls are also a very recognizable Day of the Dead symbol. You can make them at home by molding a mixture of granulated sugar, meringue powder and water into the shape of a skull then decorate them with bright colored frosting.
Stop by CocoAndre Chocolatier, a Mexcian chocolatier in Oak Cliff, for delicious hand-painted calaveras. Andrea Pedraza combines traditional European techniques with modern Mexican flavors. The Belgium dark, milk and white chocolate skulls almost look too good to eat,