El Dia de Los Muertos originated in Mexico, before the Spanish conquest. The exact date is unknown but it has been speculated that the idea originated with the Olmecs, possibly as long as 3000 years ago. This concept was passed to other cultures such as the Toltecs, Maya, Zapotec, Mixtec and Aztecs. Zapotec and Mixtec influence are strong in Oaxaca. The Aztec celebration was held during the Aztec month of Miccailhuitontli, presided over by the goddess Mictecacihuatl Lady of the Dead, and dedicated to children and the dead. Following the Spanish conquest of Mexico during the 16th century, there was a strong effort to convert the native population to Catholicism. There was a good deal of reluctance on the part of the indigenous people which resulted in a blending of old customs with the new religion. A ritual the Spaniards would try unsuccessfully to eradicate. Indigenous people believed that souls did not die, that they continued living in Mictlan (Place of Death) a special place for them to finally rest. Before Dia de los Muertos, an area of the house is cleaned up and the furniture removed to make room for the altar. The altar consists at a minimum of a covered table, and usually a few crates or boxes are added to it and covered to create open shelves and other raised display areas. The coverings used can vary from plain to vibrantly colored oil cloth. The altar is then set up with the appropriate ofrendas (offerings) for Dia de los Muertos. Although Dia de Los Muertos coincides with Halloween in the United States, the south-of-the-border tradition does not focus on candy collection or mischievous tricksters. For Mexicans, the symbolic visits from the dead are neither morbid nor macabre. They are celebratory.Generalizing broadly, the day’s activities consist of visits by families to the graves of their close kin.
At the gravesites family members engage in sprucing up the gravesite, decorating it with flowers and interacting socially with other family and community members who gather at the cemetery. Day of the Dead Bread (Pan de muertos) is decorated with strips of dough which appear like human bones. Bread is one of the centerpiece items on every altar. Extra loaves are shared with mortal guests. Many foreigners are introduced to Day of the Dead via handicrafts, including paper mache skeletons (calacas) and candy skulls. Sweets and candy skulls are traditionally intended for the souls of departed children, who return to earth in the late afternoon of October 31. Due to the fact that this is a Latin American holiday the Day of the Dead is celebrated from Mexico to Tierra del Fuego, the southernmost tip of South America. Different countries celebrate their Day of the Dead in different manners, as they also vary from town to town in Mexico. In Guatemala they celebrate the Day of the Dead by the construction and flying of giant kites in addition to the traditional visits to gravesites of ancestors. A big event also is the consumption of Fiambre that is made only for this day during the whole year. The Haitians play loud music all night long. The Bolivians celebrate their Day of the Dead on November 9th, and refer to it as “Day of the Natitas” (Day of the Skulls) which is garnished with a crown of fresh flowers. The Bolivians pray protection, provided by their dead, during the coming year. Panama celebrates the Day of the Dead with the equivalent of a National Day of Mourning, where no alcohol is served or sold to the public, until after midnight of November 2nd.
In the Philippines, it is called Araw ng mga Patay (Day of the Dead), Undas or Todos Los Santos (since this holiday is celebrated on November 1, All Saints Day, designated by the Roman Catholic Church), and has more of a “family reunion” atmosphere. In many countries with a Roman Catholic heritage, All Saints Day and All Souls Day have long been holidays where people take the day off work, go to cemeteries with candles and flowers, and give presents to children, usually sweets and toys. In Portugal and Spain, ofrendas (offerings) are made on this day. In Spain, the play Don Juan Tenorio is traditionally performed. In Spain, Portugal, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and France, people bring flowers to the graves of dead relatives. In Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Lithuania, Croatia, Romania, Austria and Germany, the tradition is to light candles and visit the graves of deceased relatives. In Tyrol, cakes are left for them on the table and the room kept warm for their comfort. In Brittany, people flock to the cemeteries at nightfall to kneel, bareheaded, at the graves of their loved ones, and to anoint the hollow of the tombstone with holy water or to pour libations of milk on it. At bedtime, the supper is left on the table for the souls. Here’s a recipe for Pan de Muerto that I think you’ll enjoy. Happy Day of the Dead! Happy Halloween!
250 gr all-purpose flour
50 gr sugar
1 package dry yeast (7 gr)
75 gr butter, at room temperature
2 tbs orange blossom water (or anise seeds)
1 pinch salt
100 ml milk
zest of one lime and one orange
2 tbs butter
1 cup of sugar
In the bowl of a stand-up mixer cream flour, sugar, yeast and butter at slow speed. Add eggs one by one, milk, orange blossom, salt and zest. Turn speed to medium and mix for about 10 minutes. Place the dough in a greased bowl and cover. Let it rest for 1 hour in a warm place or until it doubles in size. Punch the dough in the middle and turn over a floured surface. Divide in 7 equal parts. 6 of those parts will become your loaves and the last one will be used to make the decorations.
Form the 6 loaves, place them on a greased baking sheet and let them double in size, covered. The bones and little balls to decorate the bread are placed on a plate, covered and put in the fridge to keep them firm and avoid they expand. Pre-heat oven to 180°C (about 355°F). Decorate the bread and bake for about 20 minutes. It will be ready when it is golden brown in the outside. In the meantime melt the 2 TBSP of butter in a small pot. As soon as the bread comes out of the oven brush melted butter and sprinkle sugar over them. You can also place the sugar on a flat plate and roll the loaves in it.