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The Cottage Sept/Oct Samhain 2002
Day of the Dead


Day of the Dead Info
                 from LavenderMoon

Day for the Dead... Oct.31-Nov.2

The Dead of the Dead altar is a pre-hispanic tradition that has lasted throughout the years. It has become an integrated part of the Catholic religion in Mexico.  Halloween is not a tradition in Mexico, and every year the Catholic church fights against the celebration and promotes the Day of the Dead Altars. 

What you need

The most important thing  to put on your Day of the Dead altar is a photograph of the person to whom you are dedicating the altar.
The three tier altar is covered in "papel picado" - which is bright colored tissue paper with cut out designs. The paper can be either handmade or purchased.  Three important colors are purple (for pain) white (for hope) and pink (for the celebration).
Candles are also placed all over the altar.  Purple candles again are used to signify pain. On the top level of the altar, four candles need to be placed - signifying the four cardinal points. The light of the candle will iluminate the way for the dead upon their return.
Three candy skulls are placed on the second level.  These represent the Holy Trinity. On the center of the third level a large skull is placed - this represents the Giver of Life.
All bad spirits must be whisked away and leave a clear path for the dead soul by burning in a bracero, a small burner used to cook outside.  Or you can use a sahumerio to burn copal or incense.  A small cross of ash is made so that the ghost will expell all its guilt when it is stepped on.
The Day of the Dead bread, pan de muerto, should be accompanied by fruit and candy placed on the altar.  Pan de Muerto is plain round sweet bread sprinkled with white sugar and a crisscrossed bone shape laid on top.  You can also add the person's favorite food.
A towel, soap and small bowl are put on the altar so that the returning ghost can wash their hands after their long trip. There is a pitcher of fresh water to quench their thirst and a bottle of liquor to remember the good times of their life.
To decorate and leave a fragrance on the altar, the traditional cempasuchil flower is placed around the other figures.  Cempasuchil comes from Nahuatl cempoalxochitl, that means the flower with four hundred lives.  The flower petals form a path for the spirits to bring them to their banquete.

Misconceptions of  the day of the dead:
It is not the Mexican version of Halloween. Mexicans have celebrated the Day of the Dead since the year 1800 B.C.

It is not scary or morbid. There are no images of dead people, ghosts, witches, or the devil.

It is not a cult. This ritual has nothing to do with cults. It is a Catholic Christian ritual intermixed with folk culture. Going to mass is an essential aspect of this celebration.

It doesnt honor death, but our dead relatives. We welcome the opportunity to reflect upon our lives, our heritage, our ancestors and the meaning and purpose of our own existence.

Altars or ofrendas
are not for worshiping but for offering our love and remembering our departed family members.

It is not a sad ritual. Its a day of happiness because we will be remembering our loved ones. Although when in the graveyard, people assume an introspective attitude.

It is about Love not Fear.

It is not a strange ritual. It is very similar to going to a grave and leaving flowers or stuffed animals, lighting a candle to remember the defunct.

It is not a careless or fearless confrontation of death. It is a moment to reflect upon ones life and the cycle of life and death.

Sugar Skulls

2 cups powdered sugar

1 egg white

1 tablespoon of light corn syrup

1/2 teaspoon of vanilla

1/3 cup of corn starch

Food coloring

1 fine paintbrush

1. Sift powdered sugar.
2. Mix egg white, syrup and vanilla in a dry, clean bowl.

3. Mix sugar into wet mixture gradually.
4. Mix with fingers until the mixture forms a ball.
5. Sprinkle cornstarch on table or board.
6. Put the mixture on the table and shape into smooth, manageable ball.
7. Wrap tightly in plastic and chill until ready to use. (Mixture will keep for months.)
8. Use plenty of cornstarch when making skulls or other shapes.
9. When the figures are dry, color them as you wish.

Bread for All Soul's Day Pan de Muertos
  • 1 1/2 cups flour
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon of anise seed
  • 2 packets of dry yeast
  • 1/2 cup of milk
  • 1/2 cup of water
  • 1/2 cup of butter
  • 4 eggs
  • from 3 - 4 1/2 cups of flour
  • Una taza y media de harina
  • Media taza da azúcar
  • Una cucharadita de sal
  • Una cucharada de semillas de anis
  • Dos paquetitos de levadura
  • Media taza de leche
  • Media taza de agua
  • Media taza de mantequilla
  • Cuatro huevos
  • Entres tres y cuatro y media tazas de harina
  1. Mix all dry ingredients together except the 3 - 4 1/2 cups of flour

  2. In a small pan, heat the milk, the water, and the butter. Add the liquid mixture to the dry mixture.

  3. Beat well.

  4. Mix in the eggs and 1 1/2 cups of flour. Beat well.

  5. Put in the rest of the flour, little by little.

  6. Knead the mixture on a floured board for 9-10 minutes.

  7. Put the dough in a greased bowl and allow it to rise until it has doubled in size (about an hour and a half at sea level).

  8. Punch the dough down and reshape it with some "bone" shapes on top to decorate it.

  9. Let it rise another hour.

  10. Bake at 350 degrees F for about 40 minutes.

  11. After baking, sprinkle it with confectioner's sugar and colored sugar.
  1. Mezcle todos los ingredientes secos menos las 3 - 4 1/2 tazas de harina.

  2. En una olla caliente la leche, el agua y la mantequilla. Añada la mezcla líquida a la mezcla de ingredientes secos.

  3. Bátalo bien.

  4. Agregue los huevos y una taza y media de harina. Bátalo bien.

  5. Agregue el resto de la harina poco a poco.

  6. Sobre una tabla enharinada, amase por unos 9 -10 minutos la mezcla.

  7. Ponga la masa en un recipiente engrasado, y deje que levante hasta que haya doblado su tamaño (aproximadamente hora y media al nivel del mar).

  8. Para que la masa se encoja, déle puñetazos y fórmela de nuevo con unos "huesos' de masa encima para decorarla.

  9. Deje que levante una hora más.

  10. Hornee a 350 defrees F por unos 40 minutos.

  11. Después de hornearlo, espolvoréele azúcar glas y azúcar coloreado.

Glossary of Words for Day of the Dead

Catholic hymn of praise.

In Mexico it refers to the Grim Reaper, a skeleton figure representing death.

Literally, skull; (1)imaginary and satirical obituaries which appear in newspapers; (2)satirical verses.

Tomfoolery; wild behavior.

From skull, meaning to live it up or act recklessly.

Yellow marigold which symbolizes death; also called zempasuciti..

El Dia de Difuntos
Used synonymously with Dia de los Muertos.

Sweet bread made for the Festival of the Dead.

los angelitos
Young children who have died and who are remembered on the feast of All Saints' Day.

la Noche de Duelo
"The Night of Mourning", the beginning of Dia de los Muertos in Mexico, where there is a candlelight procession to the cemetery, in which friends and relatives bring food and flowers, have a meal there, and decorate an altar to the deceased.

Offerings set out for the returning souls during All Saints' and All Souls' Days; it also often refers to the actual altar with offerings.

pan de los Muertos
"Bread of the Dead"; slightly sweet bread loaf, with coils of dough depicting bones or skulls baked on top.

Sweet bread made for the Festival of the Dead.

Todos Santos
All Saints'Day.

A type of marigold, bright orange and yellow, that is the traditional flower of the dead. Also cempasuichil.


Carmichael, Elizabeth, and Chloe Sayer. The Skeleton at the Feast: The Day of the Dead in Mexico. Austin: U of Texas Pr, 1992. Boeckmann Center GT4995.A4C37 1992

Mueller, Peggy, ed. Los Dias de los Muertos=The Days of the Dead. Wellesley: World Eagle, 1991.
Boeckmann Center GT4995.A4L36 1991