El Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), is a Mexican celebration which begins October 31, and ends on November 2. November 1, All Saints Day, and November 2, All Souls Day are marked throughout Mexico and is common to all.
Children play "funeral" with toys that are made to represent coffins and undertakers. Death is laughed at in its face. We have no qualms about getting up close and personal with death, we chase after it, we mocks it, we even court it.
At Midnight they are called home with the mournful tolling of bells.
Day of the Dead festivities in villages throughout the state of Michoacan have a distinctive flavor reflecting the culture of the area's Purepecha Indians. Having successfully resisted conquest in the pre-Hispanic era, this ethnic group remained immune to outside influences until the arrival of the Spanish Conquistadors. As in other parts of Mexico, floral tributes, regional repast and candlelight vigils in each local cemetery are integral to the November 1 and 2 celebrations, but among the Purepechas (or Tarascans, as the Spanish named them) these activities are relegated to women and children. Meanwhile, the male population commemorates the season with other rituals related to the fall harvest.
In my culture, the adults set aside November 2 (All Souls Day) for remembering the adult dead, and contemplating our own deaths. Witches and ghosts, unseen demons and the souls of the dead wandering in the dark were very real to ancient people, and this should not surprise us. Even if it is nothing more than the fear of the unknown, fear of the dark is a common experience today, just as it was in more "primitive" times.
The antidote to darkness is light and the rituals of the ancients at this time of year involved fire.
We all have wall switches that produce instant light in our homes and the glare of halogen street lamps that prevent our cities and towns from ever being completely in the dark (except during a power outage!). Step back for a bit of perspective before you dismiss the quaint and ill-informed customs of the ancients as pagan nonsense. Indeed, as the days grow shorter and the hours of natural light are fewer, we would do well to reflect on the importance of light, literally and figuratively, in our lives.
To shed light on a problem is to move towards a solution. To come out of the darkness into the light is to overcome fear and ignorance.
Even if we are skeptical about witches and demons, we still have to deal with the reality of death--our own, as well as the death of ancestors, family, and friends who have gone before us.
I set aside these days to bring death and the dead into the light: to acknowledge loss and move beyond it; to mourn, but not to despair; to regret what needs to be regretted, but even more to celebrate what needs to be celebrated; to remember the past and have hope for the future; to see life as a gift and death as a new beginning.
Most importantly my friends, remembering that we are all bound together as one, we are all connected in this life as well as in the life to come.
Here is a video explaining how to bake your own sweet breads to offer your dearly departed loved ones.
1/4 cup milk
1/4 cup butter, cut into 8 pieces
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 package active dry yeast
1/4 cup very warm water
2 -3/4 cups flour, unsifted
1. Bring milk to a boil. Remove from heat, then stir in butter, sugar and salt.
2. In a large bowl, mix yeast with warm water until yeast is dissolved. Let stand 5 minutes, then add the milk mixture.
3. Separate the yolk and white of one egg. Add the yolk to the yeast mixture, saving the white for later. Add the other egg, too. Now add the flour to the yeast and egg mixture, blending well until a ball of dough is formed.
4. Flour a work surface very well and place dough in center. Knead until smooth. Return to the large bowl, cover with a clean dish towel, and let dough rise in a warm place for 90 minutes.
5. Grease a baking sheet. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Turn dough out onto floured surface again and knead once more. Then divide the dough into fourths. Set one fourth aside. Roll the remaining three pieces into ropes, all of about the same length. They should be fairly hefty--not dainty ropes.
6. Pinch three rope ends together and braid. Finish by pinching ends together on opposite side. You should have one long braided loaf. Next, divide the remaining dough in half and shape each half into a bone. Cross the "bones" in an "X" shape and lay them atop the braided loaf.
7. Cover bread with the dish towel again and let it rise for 30 minutes more. Meanwhile, in a large bowl, mix the following:
3 teaspoons sugar
3/4 teaspoon anise seeds
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
8. In another bowl, beat egg white slightly. When the bread has finished its 30 minutes of rising, brush top with egg white and sprinkle with the sugar mixture, being careful not to get any on the crossed bones. Bake for 35 minutes, or untildone, at 350 degrees.
They are especially good with a cup of Mexican hot chocolate (be sure to add a pinch of cayenne pepper). Enjoy!
This may all seem morbid and somewhat ghoulish to those who are not part of that culture. But, for Mexicans who believe in the life/death/rebirth continuum, it's all very natural. this is not to say that they treat death lightly.