Food is a central part of all Day of the Dead celebrations and while you can pretty much eat any time, the official moment it’s enjoyed is during Dinner of the Souls, otherwise known in Mayan as “Hanal Pixan.” The belief is that after the dearly departed have made their long trip from the after-life, they will be weary and in need of sustenance. During a Dinner of the Souls, traditional foods are enjoyed and are also placed at the altars, known a “ofrendas.” But let’s start with the dinner.
What We Did
Even if you don’t go to Mexico, you can easily create your own Dinner of the Souls celebration. We integrated a few of the traditional elements required. While each family probably has their own customs to honor their loved one who have passed, we set up the basics so you could have a blueprint, a jumping off point.
Flowers (marigolds). Also known as “flower of the dead,” marigolds are used in Dinner of the Souls because of their vibrant color and scent. They also represent the fragility of life. You can even make a path from with the flower petals from the grave to your home to help loved ones find their way. Aztecs used this flower for medicinal purposes and they thought if you eat them it could cure hiccups or heal those struck by lightening. Other flowers placed at the altar are black roses.
Candles. These light the way for the dead upon their return and can be used both in a Dinner of the Souls and all over an ofrenda, the altar.
Papel picada. These decorations are brightly colored tissue paper with delicate cut-outs. We hung them up along with the lights in our atrium, where we had our Dinner of the Souls/Day of the Dead celebration. If you want to find the traditional colors, you can: purple (for pain), white (for hope) and pink (for celebration).
Sugar skulls. These represent the departed soul. A typical Mexican altar has three sugar skulls on the second level and one large skull on the third level along with some Pan de Muerto. These date back to the sugar art tradition brought to Mexico by 17th-century Italian missionaries. For the most part, they are not edible.
Sweets and Treats. Since Mexico has a history of being abundant in sugar production, it makes sense that sugar, whether you can eat it or not, would play a role in Dinner of the Souls. There are lots of candies to be left for the spirits, especially the children aka “angelitos” who are believed to arrive from October 31-November. 1. Here are some of the top things to dig into: mazapan (like a Reese’s cup without the coating), Cacahuates Japones (Japanese peanuts), Pulparindo (tamarind fruit), Vero Mango (hard mango candy), Carlos V Chocolate Bar and more. We found these adorable cookies at our local bakery.
Empty Place Settings. At a Dinner of the Souls, it’s also customary to include a place setting for every person who you wish to honor – you can even make their favorite dish.
If You Want to go All Out
When it comes to preparing traditional menu items, here are some you can cook up: Pan de Muerto, a traditional sweet bread that are usually shaped like people. Chicken Pozole, an ancient dish that hails from Pre-Columbian days that is made of hominy and pork or chicken. Tacos de Carnitas (Pork) – This dish originated in the state of Michoacan and is served throughout central Mexico. It utilizes either pork shoulder or pork butt. And Calabaza en Tacha, candied pumpkin. But the most important dish of all for this holiday is mucbipollo. The name is a mash-up of a Mayan and Spanish word. In Mayan, “muc” means “buried” and “bi” means “baked,” and “pollo” is the Spanish word for “chicken.” This savory dish is kind of like a tamale but it’s much bigger. It’s made with corn dough and chicken and is wrapped in banana leaves. It’s usually cooked in an underground pit called a “pib,” but these days people take their mucbipollo to a bakery and they do it for you.
The Altar aka Ofrenda
There are many things you’ll need to create an ofrenda, but truthfully, it’s up to you about what you do and don’t include. However, here are a few of the things that can be included:
Other food. Fruit, Peanuts, Turkey mole, Black mole sauce, Stacks of tortillas, Tamales, candy
Drinks. Soda, water, Pulque (sweet fermented beverage from the agave), Mezcal (or any kind of tequila), Atole/cafe de olla atole (pronounced ah-toe-lay), which is a drink made with masa, finely ground corn flour. When chocolate is added, it becomes champurrado (cham-poor-ah-doe).
Trinkets. Toys (for the children, “angelitos”) like sugar coffins (you pull a string and a smiling “calavera”, a skeleton pops out; Long legged sheep and deer, also made of sugar; Comadre sugar figurines, which a mini women all decked out in necklaces, feathers, netted hats, fans and hand bags.
Copal incense (tree resin). Many believe that the smoke of Copal can both draw the spirits home and also, ward off evil and cleanse the area around the altar. The distinct scent is said to delight the spirits by reminding them of their short time on earth.
Soap and water. This is for the spirits to clean themselves after their journey.
Other Things You Can Do to Honor the Dead
Write Calaveras Literarias or “literary skulls.” Also known as “panteones,” these are short poems written in the form of epitaphs. Usually they are four-line stanzas, in which the second line rhymes with the last line, or they can be five-line stanzas and the third line rhymes with the last line. But they are usually humorous and poke fun at the deceased person.
Set Out Pillows and Blankets. Traditionally, people set up these little comfy areas, one for each person whose passed, so that they can rest after their journey.
Play Music. Turn up the mariachi or play your loved one’s favorite song.
Have a Party at the Grave. Yep, the belief is that the departed loved ones would be insulted if the living were all sad and crying. So bring along the drinks, the food. Play cards and listen to music.