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.
At Berkeley’s Ethnic Arts — a shop much more like a museum — amid Indonesian shadow puppets, African masks and Indian painted silks, stands a traditional Mexican altar set with candles, sodas, fruit and figurines of skeletons in a myriad of guises from bride and groom, to “lady of the night” and even dog and cat skeletons. The altar is decorated with cut-out tissue paper panels, surrounded by marigolds and day-glo colored skulls. Nearby is a large table set with pre-made sugar skulls and everything to decorate your own: bags of bright colored icing, foil, feathers, glitter and sequins. Owner Eleanor Hopewell has been offering this table of materials to children and adults in the community for 25 years.
Hopewell, who has traveled extensively in Mexico, was struck by the fun, festive spirit of Oaxaca’s candle-lit processions to the cemetery, the bright colors and sharing of good memories that accompany inviting the spirits of loved ones to come back and visit. A picture of Hopewell’s own mother is placed on the altar because, “Mom always loved a good party.” Hopewell tells me the mood of the Mexican Day of the Dead celebrations she experienced was not gloomy but upbeat and inviting. “It’s common to write the dead person’s name on one sugar skull and your name on the other. It’s not morbid, it serves as an invitation to show you want their spirit to come and be with you.”
Where to Buy or Make your Own Sugar Skulls and Pan de Muerto or Join the Festivities
Ethnic Arts — decorate your own sugar skull — $5 during store hours 11-6 (good to call ahead as local school groups may be there)
1314 Tenth Street, Berkeley (moving to 2236 San Pablo in mid-Nov.)
Casa Latina Bakery — Pan de Muerto, decorative sugar skulls and small edible chocolate skulls.
1805 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley
The Oakland Museum of California is hosting their 18th annual Community Celebration for Days of the Dead Sunday October 21. 12-4:30 with dance and musical performances and vendors selling pan de muerto, sugar skulls and other craft items to decorate your home altar.
Oakland’s Unity Council sponsors its 17th annual Dia de los Muertos Festival on Sunday October 28, 10-5, Fruitvale Village, features live music, Aztec dancers, altars and more.
North Berkeley’s Dia de los Muertos Celebration on Friday November 2, from 5-9pm promises a candlelight procession led by Aztec dancers. Revelers are encouraged to wear costumes or giant paper mâché heads.
A print shop on Mission Street called Autumn Express is offering a skull decorating workshop Tuesday October 23 from 5-6pm
La Victoria Panaderia on 24th Street will bake Pan de Muerto throughout the month.
La Cocina is hosting an evening exploring the Day of the Dead food and culture connection at their Folsom street center in the Mission on Wednesday October 24, 6:30-9pm with one of the graduates of their incubator program, Chef Luis Valdez, a fifth-generation Yucatecan bread maker and co-owner with his wife of Chaac Mool food cart and catering. Chef Valdez will teach participants how to make traditional breads and other dishes for Day of the Dead. The event includes dinner and drinks.
On November 2, 6-11pm — San Francisco’s Annual Procession and Festival of Altars at Garfield Park sponsored by The Marigold Project