We are just beginning to see those fanciful sugar skulls and other reminders of Day of the Dead celebrations.
In addition to the skulls, you’ll also see small tableaux, shadow boxes and folk-art figurines with skeletal characters often involved in whimsical poses as a playful symbol of life after death.
The Day of the Dead (Día de los Muertos in Spanish) is a public holiday celebrated throughout Mexico, most particularly in the Central and Southern regions. Usually celebrated on Nov. 1 and 2, it coincides with the Catholic holiday of All Souls’ Day and All Saints’ Day as well as Halloween.
It’s a much different celebration than Halloween however, since it is much more benign and not as scary as Halloween.
The indigenous people have combined these holidays with their own ancient beliefs of honoring and remembering their deceased loved ones. They believe that the gates of heaven are opened at midnight on Oct. 31, and the spirits of all deceased children (angelitos) can reunite with their families for 24 hours.
On Nov. 2, the spirits of the adults come down to enjoy the festivities and foods that are prepared for them after their arduous journey. In 2008, the tradition was recognized by UNESCO for its important cultural roots and heritage.
In most indigenous villages, gorgeous altars (ofrendas) are made in each home. They are decorated with candles, buckets of flowers (wild marigolds called cempasúchil and bright red cock’s combs), which have bright petals and a strong scent that are believed to guide the souls to the altars.
You work up a mighty hunger and thirst traveling from the spirit world back to the realm of the living, and so food is especially important. At least that’s the traditional belief.
Some families place their dead loved one’s favorite meal on a decorated altar or join together graveside to share the picnic with their departed ones.
Altars additionally are piled high with fruit, peanuts, stacks of tortillas, sodas, hot cocoa and more. Toys and candies are left for the angelitos, and on Nov. 2, cigarettes and shots of mezcal are offered to the adult spirits. Nonalcoholic drinks associated with the holiday include Jamaican iced tea made from hibiscus flowers and the thick, hot atole and champurrado.
Mexican atole is a hot drink made from corn and comes in a huge variety of flavors, from sweet to savory. Most traditional perhaps is this chocolate version known as champurrado.
The corn-flavored base, made from masa harina, is enriched with dark chocolate and cinnamon for a warming, aromatic beverage that’s perfect for winter. I also love the peanut variation in which you substitute peanut butter for the chocolate.
The amount of water and sugar added is up to you.
Serves 4 to 6
1/2 cup masa harina para tortillas (such as Maseca brand)
3 cups water plus more as needed
1 cup milk
3 1/2 ounces dark chocolate, broken into pieces
3 tablespoons dark brown sugar
1 cinnamon stick or 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
— Kosher salt
In a large saucepan, add masa and set over medium heat. Immediately add water in a slow, thin stream while whisking constantly to avoid lumps. Bring to a simmer and whisk in milk, chocolate, brown sugar, and a generous pinch of salt until chocolate is melted, about 1 minute. Add cinnamon.