Aren't skeletons, with their cavernous eye sockets and leering gap-toothed grins, supposed to inspire screams of terror?
Growing up in the central Mexican city of San Miguel de Allende, Adrian Orozco Blair, a 26-year student now living in San Francisco, didn't find the skeletons that are an integral part of Day of the Dead celebrations to be spooky, "because the skulls were sweet sugar candy and you could eat them. We had an altar in our house with pictures of our cherished ancestors. Lighting the candles was a serious moment of acknowledgement, but the altars were so colorful and full of food that it took away the scariness." In fact, he still treasures Day of the Dead as "a way the natural cycles of life are celebrated and a time when the existence of death is befriended."
Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) traces its roots to an Aztec festival that merged with the Catholic All Saints and All Souls days. Celebrated in central and southern Mexico on November 1 and 2, families spend weeks before preparing home altars. At midnight on October 31, the gates of heaven are believed to open so that the spirits of deceased children may reunite with their families for one day. Altars are decorated with toys, candy, chocolate, little glasses of milk and small sugar skulls. On November 2, the adult spirits descend to enjoy the festivities and the altars may be set with tequila or the corn-based drink atole and favored personal objects of the deceased. In the afternoon, families move the celebration to the cemeteries, to clean graves and reminisce about their departed loved ones while enjoying a feast.
Regional traditions influence the exact make-up of the altars, but common elements include candles, marigolds, incense, photos of the deceased, cut-out paper banners, fruit, candied pumpkin, mole sauce, stacks of tortillas, pan de muerto (sweet egg bread, fashioned with a bone-shaped top) and decorated sugar skulls. These last two edible items caught my fancy and after a little looking, I've complied a list of places to buy or learn to make sugar skulls and pan de muerto in the coming week.