The day after Halloween – the holiday of ghosts, witches and trick-or-treating – brings the arrival of Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), a centuries-old tradition observed largely in Mexico and Latin America, and increasingly in the U.S., to revere deceased ancestors and loved ones.
Observed Nov. 1 and Nov. 2, Day of the Dead is a celebration of the circle of life. Celebrations traditionally include the creation of ofrendas (altars) to honor those who have passed away.
Ofrendas, prepared on a table, shelves or a gravesite, can have several levels to represent different stages with different meanings based on indigenous or Christian beliefs. A two-level ofrenda can represent earth and heaven; three levels also includes purgatory; and seven levels represent all the necessary steps for the deceased to rest in peace or arrive in mictlan, the underworld in Aztec mythology.
While the specific components of each altar can vary, most typically include photos of deceased loved ones; marigold flowers, to lead the souls back with their strong fragrance; colorfully-decorated calaveras (sugar skulls); and an array of many other items.
Altars also commonly include representations of four elements: water, fire, wind and earth.
A glass of water is typically placed on the altar for the deceased soul to quench their thirst on their journey; candles can be used to symbolize fire and light their path; papel picado (colorful tissue paper cut with intricate designs) is used to symbolize wind; and sand sculptures or grains – often in the form of pan de muertos (bread of the dead) – traditionally represent earth.
Pan de Muertos
Pan de muertos is a popular sweet bread that is placed on the altar along with other foods. Although different variations and recipes exist in different regions of Mexico, the classic pan de muertos is round in shape to symbolize the circle of life and death, with a ball on top representing a skull, and pieces across the top of the bread in the shape of a cross to symbolize bones. Sesame seeds are sprinkled on some pan de muertos to represent the tears of souls.
At Panaderia San Fernando at 313 South Maclay Avenue, Mario Vega has been making pan de muertos ever since taking over the business with his wife, Graciela. in the early 1990s. He said that as Dia de los Muertos has grown in popularity in the U.S., so has the yearly demand for pan de muertos at his small bakery.
“Since we’ve had this bakery, Dia de los Muertos has become bigger and bigger,” Vega told the San Fernando Valley Sun/el Sol during a break from baking two days before Day of the Dead. “It seems like every year, more and more people want to buy them. It keeps us really busy.”
So busy that Vega said they encouraged customers to place orders in advance so the bakery can keep up with the demand. He said that many customers mistakenly believe that they can walk into the bakery at any time on Nov. 1 or Nov. 2 and find it filled with pan de muertos.
“That’s not the case, because we’re not a factory – we’re a small bakery, and we make all of our different breads fresh every day, and if we’re lucky we sell out and end up with empty shelves at the end of each day,” explained Vega. “That’s the difference between us and the supermarket.”
Vega’s recipe is simple – flour, eggs, sugar, cinnamon and water. Between Oct. 30 and closing time on Nov. 2, he estimates that he will have baked about 200 large skull-shaped versions of the pan de muertos. And how many of the smaller traditional ones?
“Too many to count,” Vega said with a laugh, but estimates they make at least 800 or more over three business days.