“Dealing with death is the root of culture.”
In preparation for an upcoming Samhain Sabbat, I drew on some of my knowledge of remembrance rituals and of death and funeral rites for menu inspiration. I majored in Anthropology and always welcome an opportunity to bring what I learned to the table, especially in the literal sense when it comes to feeding people.
Cultures across the globe venerate their dead with elaborate festivals. Many fall immediately on or after Samhain (“Sau-wen”), a Gaelic celebration that welcomes winter, the darkest part of the year.
This season also channels the opening of the portal and thinning of the veil to the Other side; when the desire to reconnect with spirits and remember our ancestors is strongest.
My song pick for this entry is one called “Totenmahl” (German: funeral feast or death meal) that I wrote several years ago. Totenmahl is equally inspired by my compulsive fears about being useful/good enough/remembered, and as an homage to death and funeral customs.
In the US our ties to Samhain have been severed for the most part, aside from practicing pagans, witches, Wiccans, eclectics, and other heathens. Americans generally celebrate Halloween the same as every other holiday with ancient non-Christian roots; in a diluted, Capitalist, Christianized way.
Most holidays now revolve around Jesus, drinking/eating too much, and lighting shit up. On the same day. The closest to a “day of the dead” holiday we have here in the Melting Pot is borrowed from our neighbours in Mexico, and most people only try it on as a costume.
All of this to say, I’m fascinated by cultures with authentic, strong, and vivid traditions, particularly those who openly mourn and honour their dead. #deathpositivity
[Separate blog dedicated to Native Americans is in progress]
The National Hispanic Cultural Center produced this overview of Dia de los Muertos and remembrance rituals among the multi-cultural and polyethnic continents of the Americas based on archaeological discoveries and oral/written traditions:
Dia de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead)
This well-known celebration takes place from 1-2 November in Mexico and increasingly worldwide. Altars composed of photos, flowers, candles, personal possessions, and gifts pop with blue, orange, and purple.
You will find these altars in family homes, burial sites, in public places, and religious centers. As part of the festival, attendees design elaborate costumes and paint their faces.
Preparing for Dia de los Muertos is time consuming. Sugar skulls and skull-themed food and decorations are also painstakingly baked and displayed for the big event.
Pan de Muerto and other sweets reserved for these days and Calacas skeletons are displayed all around.
Families will often visit and clean the graves of their beloved before and after the main events. Offerings of bread and flowers, typically marigolds, are also given to honour the lost loved ones and to guide them through the afterlife.
Here is a touching short film I found:
Mexico City hosts a grand parade each year, which you can get a feel for in the opening of scene of Spectre:
Variations of Dia de los Muertos can be found all over Central and South America. In Guatemala, the people fly massive kites and consume a special dish called fiambre that is reserved for this day.
Fiambre is a type of salad that is made from the favourite foods of loved ones who have passed, so each one varies. Saveur, Growing Up Bilingual, and Spandango each have some great example recipes in the respective links.
In Ecuador, the indigenous Kichwa people have their own designated recipes that they make for Day of Deceased (Dia de los Difuntos) on 2 November.
Loja bread filled with guava and sugar, and a spiced pineapple-blackberry pudding called colada morada are among favourites. Here is a simplified version of colada morada, but Youtube has a great video recipe for the real deal:
In Belize, the ethnic Yucatec Mayans practice Hanal Pixan which means “food for the souls” with the same style of flowers, candles, and altars. Festivities start on 31 October and last for three days, including masses and feasts.
These Mayans tie a red or black string around the wrists of their children and tie up any animals that may be tempted to run loose or be taken during these nights.
Traditional foods for Hanal Pixan include lima soup, tortillas filled with eggs in pumpkin seed sauce, and the wondrous Mucbipollo delicacy. Mucbipollo is a giant corn tamale that combines Mayan and Spanish flavours so they are filled with chicken, pork, peppers, tomatoes, and spices.
Mucbipollos are wrapped in banana leaves then placed in an outdoor pit and baked underground. Due to the size, it is often served more like a casserole. I found a great recipe here.
For Sopa de Lima (lima soup), check out this recipe:
Cochinita Pibil is a crowd-pleaser you can make in the Crock Pot, but in the event you do have a traditional Yucatecan pit in your backyard you can find a more genuine recipe here.
Another Hanal Pixan / Dia de los Muertos favourite is Tinga Poblana, a spicy chicken and chorizo stew:
Día de las Ñatitas (Day of the Skulls)
Unlike Mexico, Bolivians (specifically the Aymara) use their deceased loved ones’ actual skulls in rituals of remembrance on 8 November.
Ancient Andean and early Columbian traditions where living family is to sit with the bones of their ancestors in order to ensure continued protection and guidance are still observed today.
This typically takes place during the first November that falls three years after the deceased one’s passing, though in the meantime skulls are kept at home in shrines and glass boxes.
Ñatitas is the Spanish word for a smashed-nose; said of the appearance of a skull when one is dead and has no flesh covering the face. These skulls are decorated with flowers and surrounded by offerings of cigarettes, alcohol, candy, accessories, and herbs.
There is an enormous parade to the primary town cemetery where the decorated skulls are put on a showy display. Once at the cemetery, a special Ñatitas Mass takes place where the living pray for protection and blessings. The main event takes place each year at the General Cemetery in La Paz.
When one person dies, it is not possible for the entire family to have access to their skull. In some places, purchasing skulls from morgues, hospitals, or less reputable sources (including grave robbers) have spiked before the ceremony.
Participation is such an integral part of Aymara culture that no one wants to show up empty-handed. The practice was largely kept underground due to suppression by the Catholic church, but a few decades ago, social and economic changes shed some light on how prevalent it was in the majority of people.
Mole is one dish I love that is as varied as each individual who makes it. This rich, spicy sauce is made from hot peppers, chocolate, and other vegetables.
O Dia de Finados (Day of the Dead)
Each year on 2 November, the Brazilian public holiday O Dia de Finados combines rites from Latin, African, European, Catholic, and other religious traditions. Similar to other Day of the Dead celebrations, Roman Catholics and others go to cemeteries and churches with flowers and candles.
Guagas de Pan are rolled and decorated to look like babies, but unlike Muerto de Pan they serve as a symbol of life. Guagas are usually served in harmony with colada morada, which is often viewed as a symbol of death or the underworld.
In Brazil, day of the dead festivities are a bit more somber and participants typically spend the day in prayer, celebrating later or all through the night.
Across the Americas, each country shares similar rites following a death; large funerals and wakes are planned, homes are prepared to receive guests, attendees are greeted with holy water, candles are lit to ward off bad spirits, and the deceased are buried in coffins or cremated.
Catholics believe that when a person passes, they live on in spirit and remain an active part of the family, so continued remembrance and veneration is very important to living.
I am working on additional blogs on remembrance rituals in other geographic locations and will be updating this blog with more of my own photos once I have had time to make these dishes myself. Please feel free to share your own traditions or any others you know of with me in the meantime!