Dia de los Muertos is a big deal. Not just in Mexico but in a large part of the United States. We’ve all seen it celebrated like you might celebrate Cinco de Mayo with chips and guac, margaritas, and embroidered shirts but it’s so much more than that. It honors the return of the deceased to Earth. Building an altar and celebrating this day was something I’ve always wanted to do but I had no idea where to start. I enlisted the help of Love Child contributor Karen Trombetta, who helped me bring this beautiful table to life and even shared a list of must haves below.
Allison DeCarlo Vick, Head Pastry Chef at Enoteca/Vespaio put her own spin on the sugar skull cookies by making them macarons and we love the added color the Pan de Muerto adds to the table. The serving bowls, plates, and vases all provided by online marketplace, Thirds, served as the perfect backdrop for the delicious treats.
As we built the altar for my late Grandma Lucy, I was moved to tears. It’s beautiful and deserving, as are the loved ones it honors and I’m so excited to make this a tradition with my family every year.
Dia de los Muertos or Todos los Santos is the day to revere those loved ones who’ve left the physical world. Altars are the main attraction and most significant way to celebrate those who’ve passed. Like with any big celebration, there are a few must-haves.
People visit the graves of their loved ones and the cemeteries are overflowing with decorative florals mainly made up of cempasúchil, marigold. The flowers have a complex history all of their own.
Mexico City takes this day so seriously the planning for the festivities begins 7 months prior. It has a governmental committee in charge of a monumental offer at el Zocalo, a parade, a night bicycle ride, and a costume competition.
This is the most important part of the celebration. All altars must include a photo and personal talismans or tokens of the deceased. This includes favorite scents, foods, and candles to help them find their altar. Some even say altars must include all the natural elements of earth, wind, and fire. Papel picado, colorful paper flags, symbolizes the wind; sand and marigold petals symbolize the earth; and candles symbolize the fire. Veladoras, the candles, also help guide the deceased to their home, their altar.
Pan de Muerto
An integral part of the celebration and only available during this time of year is pan de muerto. It is by far one of my favorite things to eat ever. This may sound macabre, but the shape of the bread represents the skull of the dead and the bones. Nothing beats good Pan de Muerto and a cup of hot chocolate in my world. The look, and even taste, of it can vary slightly from state to state, but across the entire country you’ll find it to celebrate this holiday. It’s like turkey at Thanksgiving.
You know you’ve seen it – women in beautiful dresses with their faces and hands painted to look like skeletons; their hair braided and adorned with big flowers. That is a tribute to the Catrina, and probably the most popular way people use to commemorate Dia de los Muertos.
Their history dates back to the 19th century, during Benito Juarez presidency, where a cartoonist was mocking the way that indigenous people were trying so hard to adopt the European customs, but really just looked like they were trying too hard.
It evolved into the alfeñiques, or sugar skulls, to represent the deceased by putting their names on the forehead. Diego Rivera and his mural Sueño de una tarde dominical en la alameda central is responsible for naming it Catrina and for its famous glamorous and feathery outfit.
Including Your Children
Reading about the celebration. Our favorite is Little Skeletons // Esqueletitos by Canticos. Based on the song “Los Esqueletos (Calaveras) Salen de la Tumba” (The Skeletons Come Out of the Tomb), there is also an app and two videos (English & Spanish) that make this fun and interactive.