Are You Allowed to Celebrate Day of the Dead?
There's no one in the US who doesn't know about Halloween. It's just the biggest costume and candy party of the year! Many people in other countries celebrate Halloween as an American import even if it's not traditionally celebrated in their home country. But...how many of us know the traditions associated with Dia de los Muertos?
The origin of Halloween is a Celtic end-of-summer festival called Samhain (pronounced sow-in) during which people felt especially close to deceased relatives and friends. For these friendly spirits, they set places at the dinner table, left treats on doorsteps and along the side of the road and lit candles to help loved ones find their way back to the spirit world.
Over the centuries, Halloween transitioned from a pagan ritual to a day of parties, costumes, jack-o-lanterns and sweet treats for kids and adults.
How much do you know about Dia de los Muertos?
Dia de los Muertos closely resembles the Celtic tradition of honoring deceased relatives and celebrating their lives and it is a positive holiday and not at all the scary one that mass retailers would have us believe! Or one that requires a great deal of commercial products!
On this 2-day celebration (November 1 and 2), those who celebrate the holiday honor the lives of the deceased with food, drink, parties, and activities their relatives enjoyed in life because it’s assumed that the dead would be put off by sadness and mourning.
Dia de los Muertos recognizes death as a natural part of the human experience, a continuum with birth, childhood, and growing up to become a contributing member of the community. During this celebration, the dead are also a part of the community, awakened from their eternal sleep to share celebrations with their loved ones.
There’s much talk these days about the propriety of celebrating holidays that aren’t part of the culture you grew up in, yet I’m of the belief that there is much wisdom that we can learn from other cultures. There’s also every reason to honor our ancestors who came before us who shaped who we are today.
Creating an Altar
An important part of the holiday is creating an altar to create a space for the ofrendas (offerings) for the spirits of the beloved deceased who will be visiting.
Before October 31st, a prominent space in each family’s house is cleaned up and the usual furniture is removed to make room for the altar. The altar consists of, at a minimum, a covered table or clearly demarcated space on the floor; often a few crates or boxes are added to it and covered to create open shelves and other raised display areas.
The altar coverings can be made of cloth, paper, plastic, or natural materials, and vary widely from plain white to vibrant colors and intricate patterns. The main colors of the season are bright purple, pink, orange, and yellow.
What Should We Eat on Day of the Dead?
- Pan de Muerto. The most popular food associated with the holiday is the sweet bread that is delightful with coffee and that has little bone-shaped pieces of dough baked into the bread. Perfect for welcoming home the spirits after their journey home, and often taken to the cemetery for family visits.
- Champurrado. This thick hot chocolate is a favorite for every living soul I’ve ever made it for! It’s made with Mexican chocolate which is melted and thickened with corn flour and flavored with sugar and cinnamon. It’s also what Dora the Explorer was making when she sang “bate, bate chocolate!” Check it out!
- Tamales. These wrapped up steamed snacks in a corn husk or plantain leaf are made with the filling of your choice (or of your relatives’ choice). The traditional fillings are pork or chicken, but I have a wonderful recipe made with black beans, kale and cheese.
- Candied Pumpkin. This is a sweet dish that is similar to the classic candied sweet potatoes served at Thanksgiving. Candied pumpkin is often placed on the Day of the Dead altar as an offering for the deceased while also being enjoyed by the living for breakfast, for dessert, or as a snack.
- Sugar Skulls. These are also known as calaveras. They are very distinct and iconic symbols of the holiday and they are sure to be on almost every family’s ofrenda or offering for the dead. The skulls are made of white sugar mixed with egg whites or some other ingredient and pressed into molds. The skulls are allowed to dry, becoming hard, and then adorned with brightly colored icing as well as occasional non-edible items such as colored foil or sequins.
The festivities for Dia de los Muertos are symbolic and a rich part of Latin American culture. Though the festival started in Mexico, many Latin American countries and the Philippines celebrate the holiday.
Since Day of the Dead is a celebration of looking back— that is, of remembering loved ones from the past—any food that is traditional to the area in which one lives is appropriate for the occasion.There are mole dishes, empanadas with assorted fillings, lovely warm beverages and lots of sweets.
Each region of the Mexico has its specialties which are lovingly and painstakingly prepared on different festive occasions. In this way, valuable culinary traditions are preserved and perpetuated. For this reason and others, the indigenous celebration of Mexican Day of the Dead was inscribed in the UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2008.
I see the holiday as a beautiful way to remember those who made up our own personal history and it’s a healing way to honor our families and the circle of life.
Do you have any traditions for Dia de los Muertos that you’d like to share?