Sugar Skulls (Used with permission.)
Sugar Skulls

In Mexico, the Día de los Muertos (Todos Santos) (Day of the Dead/All Saints’ Day) resembles the norteamericano Halloween only superficially.

Gavin Heck)

Mexico is deeply, profoundly Catholic. And Mexico is also deeply, profoundly Aztec. Or at least traces of indigenous religions color the Catholic festivals occurring with such regularity throughout the year that daily life slows to a crawl, as families join together to eat and celebrate. Fiesta, as Mexican poet and writer Octavio Paz said, permits us to “throw down our burdens of time and reason.” And, of course, food forms the centerpiece of these feast days, as I learned from living with a Mexican family in Puebla, Mexico while I attended classes at La Universidad de las Américas in nearby Cholula.

Aside from christenings and Christmas, the Day of the Dead, celebrated on November 2, is one of the biggest feast days in Mexican popular culture, with deep roots in Aztec practices. According to an anonymous Spanish chronicler writing in 1553, “They used to celebrate the feast of the dead, because they offered in their honor to the devil many turkeys, corn, blankets, clothing, food and other things. In particular, every household celebrated a great feast. They incensed the images they had of their dead parents, kinsmen and priests.” The ancient Aztec belief that death is simply another part of the cycle of life permeates this day with its overtones of Spanish medieval Catholic customs.

Aztec Codices by Cuevo Del Rio (Used with permission.)

I’d seen Aztec codices with pictures of people with flowers, and knew of a Nahuatl poem that summed up the day’s scenes for me.

Must I go like the flowers that perish?

Will nothing remain of my name?

Nothing of my fame here on earth.

At least my flowers, at least my song!

Earth is the region of the fleeting moment.

The poignancy of those words, sung by a long-dead poet, touched me in that eternal place where humanity dwells in all of us – the knowledge that our time here on earth is finite, as much as we north of the border try to pretend otherwise, by buying more, eating more, running more, drinking more.

Day of the Dead Altar (Used with permission.)

The textbook version goes like this:

Mexicans celebrate Todos Santos by preparing sumptuous multi-level altars in their homes to welcome the dead. In the afternoon or the evening, families go to the cemeteries to clean family gravesites, eat  a picnic, and spend time together as families (la velación), remembering the dear departed with prayers, stories, flowers symbolizing the shortness of earthly life, pan de muertos (bread baked in the shape of bones or human shape), candy skulls or calaveras, photographs and mementos, candles (four representing each of the cardinal directions and one for each dead relative), incense-like copal to guide the dead home, and mountains of food and drink. Basic and essential foods for home altars tend to be water, salt, and bread, all highly symbolic in Catholic liturgy and purification ceremonies. Water refreshes the souls, salt purifies them, and bread sustains them. Paper banners (papel picado) draped over the altars reveal a number of lace-like designs, usually of skulls or other mortuary symbols. Flowers, especially orange marigolds or cempasuchil with their strong odor, help to guide the dead home, as do the odors of their favorite foods and burning copal. Families often sprinkle marigold petals across the threshold of the house, right up to the home altar created to the honor of the dead.

The tianguis, or Day of the Dead markets, bulge with candy skulls and other items on sale. Families strive to prepare their dead relatives’ favorite foods, and for deceased males, liquor or cigarettes may stand on the altar next to pots of spicy chicken mole. mole with turkey, pan de muertos in the shape of humans and even dogs, candied pumpkin, chocolate coffins and skulls, tamales, champurrado (a sweet chocolate drink thickened with corn masa harina and flavored with anise), posole and atole (drinks made from cornmeal), moles, horchatas (drinks made with seeds). Fruit of all kinds, particularly oranges and bananas, hang suspended from the arco, or arch, framing the home altar, often fashioned out of sugar cane. Other ofrendas, or offerings, include seasonal produce, yellow tejocotes that taste like plums, lemons, cinnamon, corn, tortillas, tangerines, chocolate, squash-like chayotes, corundas (a type of tamal from Michoacán), and peanuts.*

"Caterina" Skull Figure

And the living, breathing, human version goes like this:

November 2 was the day that everyone in Pablo’s family packed up various mole sauces, tortillas, pozole, candied squash, pan de muertos made into human shapes, tamales, and fresh fruit, and picnicked on top of family graves after scrubbing off lichen, stains, bird droppings, and weeding around the graves. Putting fresh flowers and burning candles on the graves, seeing old friends attending the graves of their loved ones, sharing reminisces, and telling stories. To miss this annual ritual was simply unheard of. Pablo and I couldn’t dream of doing anything else until late afternoon, not until we’d visited the cemetery where his four grandparents lay in eternal repose under thick slabs of cement, their fading photographs a testimony to the relative shortness and impermanence of earthly life.

Sugar Skulls (Calaveras)

For days before the feast, Pablo’s mother and her maid cooked the picnic foods. His brothers Francisco – short, wiry, intense – and Pechugo -so nicknamed and meaning “chicken breast” because his rotund girth testified to his love of food, bought sugar skulls decorated with the names of each family member, both living and dead. And mine as well. Seeing my name written in squiggles of orange and blue frosting on a sugar skull scared me, coming as I did from the “norteamericano” way of viewing death as something to be strenuously avoided. Yet, watching the gaiety and remembering the dearly departed, chattering with Pablo’s aunts and uncles and cousins gathered in the cemetery, all that modified my perspective a bit. Instead of mourning and weeping and gnashing of teeth, I saw joy and love. A true manifestation of the Catholic belief in the “communion of saints.”

Susan Mecklem)

That November day, the sun shone like the star it is. But the chill air, around 60 degrees, promised the gray, drizzly days of late November to come. I pulled my rebozo tighter around me to keep out the wind as I helped Pablo’s mother by setting put the dishes along the edge of the graves of her parents. Her Chinese father’s features didn’t seem all that much out of place among the photographs of the mestizo visages of the other graves. He’d come to Mexico from Canton to work on the railroads at the end of the 19th century. Pablo’s father’s parents looked very “indio,” but I said nothing, remembering how one time early in my stay I’d mentioned how Indian his father looked, meaning it as a compliment in my ignorance, and immediately regretted saying anything because of Pablo’s indignant reaction. Despite the indigenista movement of the 1930s and later, aided by the muralists Diego Rivera and Juan O’Gorman, no one wanted to appear indio, the butt of jokes for their poor Spanish and clumsy ways.

Marigold for Day of the Dead (Used with permission.)

After the families finished scrubbing the graves clean and strewing bright orange marigolds around the graves, Tio Jorge broke out bottles of pulque and tequila and passed them around to the men. To be honest, I loathed the taste of those maguey-based beverages with their long pedigrees in Mesoamerica. Pulque, or octli in the native language, comes from the fermentation of the maguey plant, a member of the agave family and long a sacred plant in Mexico. I didn’t even like beer then, much less pulque. Its fruity flavor resembled nothing I’d ever tasted before. Women didn’t drink, or at least did not in public, so I passed the bottles onward when they came my way.

On my altar, if anyone ever celebrates me on the Día de los Muertos (Todos Santos), please include the following recipe:

Pork chile verde 2

Pork Chile Verde Serves 4-6

I never ate this dish in Mexico, yet it is one of my favorites. Its preparation is very typical of the Mexican way of preparing meat in a chile sauce, what I call the “mole” method. The best restaurant version I ever at was in San Juan Bautista, California, in the shadow of that amazing old Franciscan mission built by Fray Junipero Serra and his followers. Be sure to serve this with plenty of warm flour tortillas. I often make burritos with this pork dish, too.

2 ½ lbs. boneless pork butt or shoulder, cut into 1 1/2-inch pieces
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste  and 2 cups flour
¼ c. peanut oil
1 large yellow onion, cut into 1-inch chunks
3 poblano chiles, seeded, cut into 1-inch chunks
3-4 jalapeño peppers, seeded and finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, peeled and finely minced
1 ½ lbs. tomatillos, roasted in a 450 F oven for about 30 minutes, then peel off the papery skin, blended to a purée in a blender
2 t. dried Mexican oregano
2 t. ground cumin
1 large bunch cilantro leaves, chopped (1 cup or so) plus extra for garnish
3 cups unsalted chicken stock
Grated Jack cheese
Flour tortillas

Season the pork with the salt and pepper. Dredge pork in the flour and shake off excess. Heat the oil in a large, heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high heat. Brown the pork well, until all sides are crusty. You may have to cook the meat in batches. Remove cooked meat to a plate covered with a paper towel.

When all the pork is cooked, add the onion to the pot, cooking over medium heat, until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the poblano chiles and the jalapeños and cook for 4 more minutes. Stir in the garlic, cook about 2 minutes, stirring constantly. Add the pork and the tomatillos to the onion-chile mixture. Stir in the oregano, cumin, and cilantro. Pour in the chicken stock and bring the mixture to a boil. Reduce the heat to low and cook, covered, for 2 hours. Pork needs to be fork tender. Add salt and pepper to taste if needed.

Serve in bowls garnished with more cilantro and some Jack cheese. Eat with flour tortillas.

Pan de Muertos (Used with permission.)


Cooks shape this bread into skulls or round loaves with strips of dough
rolled out and attached to resemble bones.

½ cup butter
½ cup milk
½ cup water
5 to 5-1/2 cups flour
2 packages dry yeast
1 tsp. salt
1 T. whole anise seed
½ cup sugar
4 eggs

In a saucepan over medium heat, heat the butter, milk, and water until just about simmering — you will see small bubbles forming on the sides of the pan.

Meanwhile, measure out 1-1/2 cups flour and set the rest aside. In a large mixing bowl, combine the 1-1/2 cups flour, yeast, salt, anise seed, and sugar. Beat in the warmed liquid ingredients until well combined. Add eggs and beat in 1 more cup of flour. Continue adding more flour until dough is soft but not sticky. Knead on a lightly floured surface for ten minutes until smooth and elastic.

Lightly grease a bowl and place dough in it, cover with plastic wrap, and let rise in warm place until doubled in bulk, about 1-1/2 hours. Punch the dough down and shape into loaves resembling skulls, skeletons or round loaves with “bones” placed ornamentally around the top. Let these loaves rise for 1 hour.

Bake in a preheated 350 F degree oven for 40 minutes. Remove from oven and paint on glaze.


1/2 cup sugar
1/3 cup fresh orange juice
2 tablespoons grated orange zest

Bring to a boil for 2 minutes, and then brush on bread with a pastry brush.

If desired, sprinkle with colored sugar while glaze is still damp.

* Text adapted from an article I wrote for an encyclopedia on entertaining through the ages, Entertaining from Ancient Rome to the Super Bowl.


Andrade, Mary J. Through the Eyes of the Soul, Day of the Dead in Mexico-Michoacán. 2nd. Ed. [n.p.]; La Oferta, 1999.

Brandes, Stanley. Skulls to the Living, Bread to the Dead: The Day of the Dead in Mexico and Beyond. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2006.

Carmichael, Elizabeth and Chloë Sayer. The Skeleton at the Feast: The Day of the Dead in Mexico. Austin, Texas: University of Texas at Austin, 1992.

Fletcher, Nicola. “Feasts for the Dead: Conquering Fear.” In: Charlemagne’s Tablecloth: A Piquant History of Feasting. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2004, p. 210-215.

Garciagodoy, Juanita. Digging the Days of the Dead: A Reading of Mexico’s Días de Muertos. Denver, Colorado: University Press of Colorado, 2000.

Greenleigh, John and Rosalind Rosoff Beimler. The Days of the Dead: Mexico’s Festival of Communion with the Departed. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1991.

Lomnitz, Claudio. Death and the Idea of Mexico. Brooklyn, NY: Zone Books, 2008.

Norget, Kristin. Days of Life, Days of Death: Ritual in the Popular Culture of Oaxaca. New York: Columbia University Press, 2006.

Paz, Octavio. “The Day of the Dead,” in: The Labyrinth of Solitude: Life and Thought in Mexico. New York: Grove Press, 1961, p. 47-64.

Salvador, R. J. “What Do Mexicans Celebrate On The Day Of The Dead?” In: Morgan, J. D. and P. Laungani (Eds.), Death and Bereavement in the Americas. Death, Value and Meaning Series, Vol. II. Amityville, New York: Baywood Publishing Co., 2003, p. 75-76.

Santiago, Chiori. El Corazón de la Muerte/Altars and Offerings for the Days of the Dead. [n.p.]: Heyday Books, 2005.

© 2020 C. Bertelsen

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