Today, November 2nd, is All Souls’ Day, a day when people of some faiths and regions honour the faithful departed. Masses are held in Catholic churches to honour those who have passed on as well as in hopes that our prayers and offerings will help to assist the souls in Purgatory to reach Heaven. It is also a common time for visits to cemeteries, often with foods and drinks being placed at the graves of loved ones. This day comes just the day after All Saints’ Day, a day to honour those who were beatified prior to their death.
In some Spanish speaking countries, this celebration is known as Day of the Dead or El Día de los Muertos. The Day of the Dead celebrations often begin on Halloween (or the night before) and continue through All Soul’s. In many places Day of the Dead celebrations can be quite elaborate and involve a number of traditions. Altars are generally set up in each home and are adorned with several types of “ofrendas” (offerings): food for the dead (to be eaten by the living later), marigolds (considered to be the flowers of the dead), candles for each soul, incense, and often photographs and other memorabilia associated with the dead.
How to make your own Day of the Dead altar: http://www.azcentral.com/video/#/Day+of+the+Dead+altar/33965761001
The foods are generally based on the favourite foods of the deceased but of course have regional and cultural components to them as well. Popular choices are sugar skulls, maize cakes, enchiladas and tamales, chocolate, candied fruits, and pumpkins as well as beverages like water, beer, tequila, coffee, and atole (a fruit flavoured drink made from cornstarch). Another popular food is the pan de muerto. This special Day of the Dead bread is most often made as a round loaf decorated with a cross made of bones and is usually a sweet bread made with anise.
A recipe for Pan de Muerte http://www.globalgourmet.com/food/egg/egg1096/panmuert.html
How to make Atole:
10 cups milk
½ lb. sugar
2 lb. of any kind of fruit
1 stick of cinnamon
1/8 tsp. baking soda
1 cup corn starch
Directions: Cut up the fruit and boil it in plain water until it is soft enough to puree. Drain and puree in a blender. Put the puree in a saucepan and add the remaining ingredients except for the cornstarch. Dissolve the cornstarch in some water and add that to the saucepan. Place the pan over low heat and stir continually until it begins to thicken. You may want to add more sugar to taste. Drink while still warm.
The sugar skulls (calaveras de azúcar) are just what they sound like: small skulls that have been moulded from a sugar paste and decorated. The sugar symbolizes the sweetness of life and the skull symbolizes the sadness of death. Generally there is one made for each member of the family, living or dead, and labeled with their names on the foreheads.
Two sites with instructions for making your own sugar skulls:
In addition to the sugar skulls, sugar masks called calacas (usually made from paper mache or wood and adorned to look like the sugar skulls) are worn by the celebrants and they dance in honour of the dead. There is usually a parade and the people of the town dress up in costumes (usually something representative of death like ghosts and skeletons) and march through the town carrying an open coffin with an actor in it to represent the corpse. As the parade makes its way through town, people toss oranges, and sometimes flowers and candies into it.
Make your own sugar mask: http://www.azcentral.com/ent/dead/articles/dead-crafts_sugarmaks.html
A popular decoration for Day of the Dead celebrations are the beautiful cutwork tissue paper flags known as papel picados.
These sites not only have instructions for making your own papel picados but they have some patterns there as well!
A couple of other Day of the Dead traditions are the Calaveras. These are poems often written in the form of obituaries but written about living people, often politicians to poke fun at them. To me, they seem like the equivalent of the political cartoons you see in many newspapers and may be accompanied by comical illustrations, often in the form of skeletons. Another item often used at the celebrations are the cascarones or confetti eggs. These are hollowed out egg shells that have been filled with confetti that are then cracked over the heads of friends and family to bring them good luck.
To make your own cascarones, you need to begin by hollowing out some eggshells. You do this by piercing both ends of the egg and then gently blowing out the insides. You need to make one opening wide enough to be able to fill it with confetti. The openings are then closed up and the eggs decorated by decoupaging them with colourful pieces of tissue paper.
If you would like to learn more about the Day of the Dead and/or if you are a teacher and would like a complete teaching unit on the Day of the Dead (includes art projects too), check out this link: http://www.azcentral.com/ent/dead/articles/dead-education.html
A Day of the Dead celebration
For another take on All Souls’ Day, see this post on Soul Cakes: http://islandtearoom.wordpress.com/2009/11/03/soul-cakes/