Seasons by the Sea: Celebrating the Lives of the Dead

A celebration that originated with the Aztecs of central Mexico
Decorations for Dia de los Muertos at La Fondita in Amagansett Eric Striffler

Day of the Dead, or Dia de los Muertos, is a celebration that originated with the Aztecs of central Mexico thousands of years ago. Nov. 1 is the Day of the Innocents, or Dia de los Inocentes, or Dia de los Angelitos, Day of the Little Angels, that is, children. Nov. 2 is for celebrating deceased adults. These are not days of mourning the passing of friends and family, they are celebrations of their lives, and the rituals that accompany these holidays are to welcome them back for a day.

Toys and candy are the ofrendas, or offerings, for children. The adults get alcohol and a variety of other foods. Sometimes families build altars in their homes, and sometimes makeshift altars are built at the gravestones of the dead. Occasionally, poems are written and recited, anecdotes are shared, and songs are sung. Strings of paper cutouts are hung to represent the wind and sky.

Some of the traditional foods offered on the day of the dead are a sweet, eggy bread with glazed dough “bones” on top, candied pumpkin infused with cinnamon sticks, brown sugar, and orange zest, ornately decorated sugar skulls (calaveros), tamales, atole, sweetened hibiscus tea, tequila, and mezcal. It is believed that the deceased will receive the “spiritual essence” of the food, taking the nutritional value, but the living celebrants will eat it anyway. Candles, incense, and bright marigolds are also elements of the ofrendas.

When the spirits of the dead return for one day, it is believed they will provide protection, good luck, and wisdom for the living.

Before the Spanish conquest, this holiday was celebrated at the end of harvest season in late August. When the Catholics came around, it became a mash-up, now coinciding with All Saints Day and All Souls Day.

The Day of the Dead is also celebrated in Italy, Spain, South America, and the Philippines, although more somberly. There are special masses, and gravestones and tombs of loved ones are cleaned up. Central and southern Mexico make it a more festive celebration with music, drinks, and parties. Tears are not meant to be shed, for the departed may slip on them on their journey. It is more of a cultural holiday than religious one, a time to recount not how the loved ones died, but how they lived.

There are always worthwhile things to learn from other cultures, and the lessons of Dia de los Muertos are good ones to teach our children. Celebrate your ancestors by playing their favorite song, bring them back to life with an amusing anecdote, and prepare some of their favorite foods.

The following candied pumpkin recipe would probably be great made with Long Island cheese pumpkins. I wouldn’t recommend using your now shriveling jack-o’-lantern from Halloween.

If you can’t find Chimayo peppers for the red chile sauce, you can substitute any other fairly large (about two to four inches dried), fairly hot chile pepper. It is a little labor intensive, but so worthwhile. Also be sure to get good corn tortillas and high-quality Monterey jack cheese for the recipe, it makes a big difference.

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Although tamales are a traditional Mexican Day of the Dead food, some diners may enjoy whatever is on the menu at their favorite Mexican joint, like these duck tacos. Laura Donnelly