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Dias de los Muertos


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Días de los Muertos is an ancient, Mexican and Mexican American religious holiday, with a historically rich tradition that integrates Catholic customs. It is often celebrated in Mexico on November 1st and 2nd in connection with the Catholic Holy Days of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day.

The holiday is spread over two days. November 1 is Dia de los Inocentes, honoring children who have died. Graves are decorated with white orchids and baby's breath. November 2 is Dia de los Muertos, honoring adults, whose graves are decorated with bright orange marigolds.

Here are 12 activities to help you learn more.

  1. When we think of day of the dead celebrations we mostly think of the Mexican traditions. It is actually celebrated throughout most of the Catholic world including Italy, Spain, South America and the Philippines. How do traditions, customs, and celebrations differ in these countries?
  2. What is an Ofrenda? What types of items are usually placed on an ofrenda and what purpose do those items serve?
  3. Draw/plan, or create an ofrenda. Be creative but as traditional as possible. Share your ofrenda with your group. Talk about why you chose the materials/colors/items that you used and why they’re important to you or your family.
  4. Flowers play a big role in day of the dead celebrations and traditions. What types of flowers are traditional used and what is the cultural significance of the specific types of flower?
  5. . Calaveras (skulls) are short poems mocking epitaphs of friends, describing interesting habits and attitudes or funny anecdotes. This custom originated in the 18th or 19th century. The caravelas literarias or literature skulls originated in the 19th century as a form of illustrations of important personalities and politicians of the time as skeletons that kept their features so they were recognizable. The illustrations included a short epitaph-style poem. Do a little more research about the format and style of caravelas literarias and write one yourself.
  6. What is “Dead Bread”?

Using this recipe, or a recipe from your own family celebrations make your own loaf of “pan de muerto”

· 4 ounces butter (at room temperature)

· 3/4 cup sugar (white)

· 3 teaspoons aniseed (whole)

· 1 teaspoon salt

· 6 cups flour (white bread or all-purpose), divided

· 4 large eggs (at room temperature)

· 1 1/4 cups warm water (not to exceed 110 F)

· 2 tablespoons orange zest

· 2 (1/4-ounce) packets instant dry yeast

In the bowl of a stand mixer, combine butter, sugar, aniseed, salt, and 1/2 cup of the flour.

Use the dough hook to mix the ingredients until they begin to come together

In a separate small bowl, whisk together the eggs, water, and orange zest.

Add this to the stand mixer bowl, along with another 1/2 cup of the flour. Mix until combined.

Add the yeast and another 1/2 cup of flour, mixing to combine.

Add the remaining flour 1 cup at a time, mixing between additions, until a dough forms.

Turn the dough out onto a floured surface about knead it for 1 minute.

Cover it with a clean, damp dishcloth and let rise in a warm area for 1 hour and 30 minutes.

Separate about 1/4 of the dough and use it to make bone shapes to drape across the loaf.

Shape the rest of the dough into a flat-bottomed semi-sphere. Position the bone shapes on the top of the loaf and press gently so they adhere. Let the dough rise for an additional hour.

Bake the loaf in a 350 F oven for about 40 minutes (30 minutes for smaller loaves).

  1. Another traditional element of Dias de los Muertos are sugar skulls.

Clay molded sugar figures of angels, sheep and sugar skulls go back to the Colonial Period 18th century. Sugar skulls represented a departed soul, had the name written on the forehead and was placed on the home ofrenda or gravestone to honor the return of a particular spirit. Sugar skull art reflects the folk art style of big happy smiles, colorful icing and sparkly tin and glittery adornments. Sugar skulls are labor intensive and made in very small batches in the homes of sugar skull makers.

Practice making and decorating your own sugar skulls.

Do not make sugar skulls on a rainy or high humidity day. They will not turn out.

Meringue Powder is a MUST and cannot be omitted.

Most people prefer white skulls the first time they make them, but if you'd like colored sugar skulls, add paste food coloring TO THE WATER.

For a 5 pound bag of sugar, use 1/4 cup meringue powder and 10 teaspoons of water. Yield 5 large skulls or 20 medium skulls or 100 mini skulls or any combination.

Mix well with hands until every bit of sugar is moistened. If your fingerprints remain when you squeeze the sugar in your hand, it is ready to mold. It should feel like cool "beach sand."

Pack sugar mixture FIRMLY into mold with special attention to chins & edges. Use a straight edge to scrape the back of the mold flat. Pack down some more until perfectly tight.

Place a stiff cardboard over mold and invert immediately. Lift mold off carefully. Throw any "mistakes" back into your bowl, stir up and try again. If mix is too dry, spritz with a water bottle.

Royal Icing for decorating

Mix 2/3 cup water, 1/2 cup meringue powder and 2 pounds powdered sugar with an electric/stand mixer until icing peaks (about 9 minutes!) Don't mix up more than 2 pounds at a time. Keep in a tightly covered container. DO NOT REFRIGERATE. Color with gel food colors while mixing if desired.

  1. Day of the Dead is an extremely social holiday that spills into streets and public squares at all hours of the day and night. Dressing up as skeletons is part of the fun. People of all ages have their faces artfully painted to resemble skulls, they don suits and fancy dresses. Many wear shells or other noisemakers possibly to rouse the dead and keep them close during the fun.

Design your own Dia de los muertos costume. Share it with your group and discuss why you chose those particular design elements for your costume?

  1. What is Papel picado?

Do some research on what role Papel picado plays in the day of the dead celebrations.

Gather some supplies and make your own Papel picado banner.

  1. Dia de los Muertos vs. Halloween

It is common for people to confuse the two celebrations or even think that they are the same celebration, but with a different name. This simply isn’t the case. While the two do share some similar aspects they are quite different. Together with your group, make a comparison chart for Dia de los Muertos vs. Halloween. List the differences in date, purpose, celebrations, symbols, food, and religious background. Discuss your findings.

11) Visit a local cultural arts center or festival hosting day of the dead celebrations. Speak with the people there about the different ways that they celebrate Dia de los Muertos and what the holiday means to them.

12) Now that you know more about The Day of the Dead, its cultural significance, its traditions and practices, put your knowledge to work. Together with your group, host a Dia de los muertos celebration for your friends and family.

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