So What Is The Day Of The Dead?

This year at The Wandering Owl we have some great Day of the Dead items, but not everyone understands what the Day of the Dead is. They come in and see all the skulls and skeletons and associate it with Halloween. While there are some similarities they are not the same. Once you understand the significance of El Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), you will not be able to help adding it to your celebrations!

The first thing to understand is that different cultures perceive death differently. In some cultures a funeral is a somber event, and we have been taught that we will not see those loved ones again until we pass over (and maybe not even then). This compounded feeling of loss is difficult for many to deal with and it also seemingly contradicts what so many of us feel in our personal lives. So many people I have talked to have expressed those feelings that “grandpa was with me” meaning usually that you felt their presence was close, or that they were watching over you. Death it seems is not a limiting factor for love.

Scholars believe that the Day of the Dead celebrations may have originated with Aztec festival dedicated to the goddessMictecacihuatl, which were then in turn influenced by the Catholic traditions of All Saints Day and All Souls Day. Interestingly enough those two holidays resulted from the Catholic attempts to stop the celebration of Samhain, the Pagan holiday that became the modern Halloween. The Day of the Dead is actually two days, All Saints Day November 1st is the day the innocents like children are celebrated. All Souls Day November 2nd is when the adults are celebrated. Taken in combination using all the origins it could be seen that the veil between the worlds thins on October 31st, and that the following two days we are able to celebrate with our Ancestors and loved ones that we have lost.

The Day of the Dead celebrations are a reminder that those friends and family are still close and are not gone from our lives. It is a time to celebrate their accomplishments, honor them and cherish our memories of them.

In some areas there are massive parades and street parties. Generally speaking it is a good time to gather family, and clean the graves of loved ones. Cemeteries are filled with candies, candles and flowers especially marigolds (which point the way from the graveyard to your home). Sugar skulls are also favored in many areas, likely a hold over from the holidays Aztec origins. Similar to our very popular Wandering Owl class “Creation and Use of an Ancestor Altar”many people erect small altars or remembrance shrines in their homes. It is here that the deceased are offered their favorite foods and beverages and there is a display of photos and memorabilia. Candles are lit to light the way. Sometimes razors and soaps are left for them to “clean up” after a long journey. Sometimes a blanket is left for them to rest. All this is to encourage our loved ones to come and visit. Stories are exchanged including those cherished “funny stories” that we all love to tell. Often these shrines are decorated with colorful skulls made of paper mache and other materials. Little skeletons are used to remember what a relative was accomplished at or liked. Had an Uncle that adored Elvis? A little skeletal Elvis may be the perfect way to bring his spirit into your home.

How the exact celebrations will vary depending on where you are, and local customs will range from funny and colorful to somber and respectful. Celebrations on Spain will vary from many areas of Mexico, and those will be different than Brazil for example. There are many books and web sites on the celebrations, and I encourage you to explore them for the things that appeal most to you.

So take some time this year to create an Ancestor shrine, or to go have a picnic in a graveyard. Let those Ancestors who are STILL in your life know that you love and cherish them. And I hope you will join us at The Wandering Owl for our next “Creation and Use of an Ancestor Altars” class, just keep an eye on our events tab or the calendar located on our home page for details.


(by Chelsie Kenyon from Pan de Muerto and Calabaza En Tacha (Candied Pumpkin)

Pan de Muerto

This bread is slightly sweet and used on the altars of loved ones during “Day of the Dead” festivities. The dough is formed into bone-like shapes to decorate the top of the loaf before baking it.

While fresh Pan de Muerto is always soft and delicious, you can also get pre-made Pan de Muerto made by the Mexican bakery El Molino.

Prep Time: 3 hours

Cook Time: 40 minutes

Total Time: 3 hours, 40 minutes


  • 1/2 cup butter

  • 1 1/4 cup water

  • 6 cups flour

  • 2 packets dry yeast

  • 1 teaspoon salt

  • 3 teaspoons whole anise seed

  • 2 tablespoons orange zest

  • 3/4 cup sugar

  • 4 large eggs

  • Glaze (see below)


Bring all ingredients to room temperature (except for the water which should be very warm) before beginning.

In a large bowl, mix together butter, sugar, anise, salt and 1/2 cup of the flour. In a seperate bowl combine the eggs and the water. Add the egg/water mixture to the first mixture and add in another 1/2 cup of the flour. Add in the yeast and another 1/2 cup of flour. Continue to add the flour 1 cup at a time until a dough forms.

Knead on a floured surface for about 1 minute. Cover with a slightly damp dishcloth and let rise in a warm area for 1 hour and 30 minutes.

Bring out dough and punch it down. Remove about 1/4 of it and use it to make bone shapes to drape across the loaf (see below.) Or divide the dough into smaller pieces to create other bone shapes. Let the shaped dough rise for 1 more hour.

Bake in a 350 degree oven for 30 minutes for smaller loaves and up to 45 minutes for larger loaves.


(After glaze is applied you may decorate with additional colored sugar.)

  • Bring to a boil- 3/4 cup sugar and 1/2 cup fresh orange juice. Brush on bread and then sift some additional sugar over the top.

  • Mix 3 tablespoons orange juice concentrate and 1/3 cup sugar with 2 egg whites. Brush on bread during the last 10 minutes of cooking.

  • Bring to a boil- 1/4 cup piloncillo, 1/4 cup sugar, 2/3 cup cranberry juice and 2 tablespoons orange zest. Brush on bread after bread has cooled.


The most common bone decorations are very simple. Sometimes it’s just a matter of forming ball shapes and pressing them into the loaf in a line. You could also take a piece of dough, roll it into a long cylinder and place a ball at each end. You can get much more detailed if you like, but even a slighly “knobby” looking loaf will get the idea across.

Calabaza En Tacha- Candied Pumpkin

This recipe is similar to candied yams, and is a great use for pumpkin. In Mexico, candied pumpkins are often used on the family altars during Dia de los Muertos And after Halloween, all of the leftover pumpkins go on sale and it is the perfect time to enjoy the fall harvest. This recipe is also non-fat. When you’re done cleaning out the pumpkin, you can use the seeds to make Pepitas

Prep Time: 15 minutes

Cook Time: 2 hours

Total Time: 2 hours, 15 minutes


  • 5 lb pumpkin (approx.)

  • 4 cinnamon sticks

  • zest of one orange

  • juice of orange

  • 2 lb piloncillo, (you can substitute brown, pure cane sugar if necessary)

  • 4 cups of water


Cut the stem of