Saturday, October 17, 2009

Day of the Dead, by Betsy May

Dia De Los Muertos or “Day of the Dead”
from The Essential Herbal Magazine, Sept/Oct '08 issue by Betsy May

This month was one of those rare and splendid moments when synchronicity steps in and life unfolds in the most perfect way. I had been contemplating writing about my experiences celebrating All Soul’s Day as a child and the herbal twists I have been trying to incorporate into it as an adult.
Growing up in a Catholic family, All Soul’s Day was observed on November 2 by attending mass and praying for the souls of loved ones that have died. As a young teenager this holy day appealed to me because it was really the only time, both in and outside of church, that was dedicated to even acknowledging the deceased. Rather than a solemn mass, however, I longed for something more meaningful, more applicable to my life. Eventually I created my own ritual, making a wreath with candles and pictures of loved ones; an altar of sorts.
As I got older and began studying the symbolism of herbs I played with the idea of incorporating them into my All Soul’s Day ritual. While the wheels began to turn in my mind about all of this, I “happened” to be reading Barbara Kingsolver’s book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (a must read, recommended to me by several people including Tina and Maryanne.) I was overwhelmed with emotion when I read her piece about the Mexican holiday Dia De Los Muertos, or “Day of the Dead,” also celebrated on November 2. Unlike the solemn rituals of my childhood, Mexicans celebrate this holiday with great joy and festivity. They believe that it is easier for the souls of the deceased to communicate with us on this day. The graves of loved ones are decorated with flowers, pictures of the Virgin Mary, and favorite foods of the deceased. Skeletons and skulls are also common symbols of The Day of the Dead. Altars of a similar nature can also be made at home. People often celebrate right on the graves, eating, drinking, and sharing stories and memories of their loved ones late into the night. What a novel idea for our culture which is obsessed with avoiding death by all means possible, worships youth, and chooses to go “under the knife” in hopes of fooling Mother Nature. The herb of Dia De Los Muertos would definitely be the marigold - usually calendula. Graves are lavished with it. The people of Mexico believe that marigolds attract the souls of the departed.
A traditional food for The Day of the Dead is pan de muerto, or “dead bread.” Pan de muerto is a sweet bread, made with anise seeds. (Possibly because seeds symbolize life? Or because anise seeds are associated with magical rituals and are rumored to increase psychic abilities?) The bread is molded into the shape of skulls or bones. I am actually lucky enough to have a friend who makes this every year and is an expert at sculpting it into the shape of skulls. I assumed it was simply made for her Halloween celebration, not realizing its deeper meaning. As I mentioned earlier, synchronicity had taken over this month and ironically I read Barbara Kingsolver’s book two days before leaving for a vacation in Mexico. (I knew there was a reason I couldn’t resist reading it before I got to the beach!)
In Mexico we stayed in a little cabana along the beach, off the beaten path, literally. In a nearby town we stumbled across an art shop that carried only items made by local artists. I stepped into the shop and was surrounded by the glory of Dia De Los Muertos! Shadowbox altars adorned the walls with miniature scenes such as little skeletons, a dinner table with food and wine, musical instruments, and little pictures of the Virgin Mary. The altars were painted bright colors of purple, blue, red, and yellow, with glitter and flowers in the background. Statues of skeletons decorated with flowers were perched on the shelves and skulls carved out of colored stone were scattered throughout the store. The whole atmosphere was one of festivity. I’m sure most tourists would be slightly disturbed by this little Mexican shop overflowing with skeletons and skulls, but my stomach did a flip flop; I had discovered the spirit of Dia De Los Muertos!
When I apprenticed with Rosemary Gladstar she spoke about the importance of honoring our elders and connecting with the ancestors. Not only does it feed our souls, it nourishes our spirits. As an herbalist, it enables us to listen to the deeper vibration of the universe, tuning in to the beauty of green medicine and the wisdom of the plants. I left Mexico with a full heart and a Dia De Los Muertos altar tucked safely in my carry on bag.
Day of the Dead Altar

Symbolism of Herbs:
Calendula: sacred affection, joy, remembrance, grief
Mugwort: be not weary, tranquility, happiness
Zinnia: thoughts of missing friends
Garlic: protection, strength, healing
Chives: usefulness, why do you weep?
Angelica: inspiration, magic
Ivy: patience, fidelity, undying love, eternal life
Pansy: happy thoughts, meditation
Rose: love
(Compiled from Herb Seed forThought by Gem Rigsby)
Begin by constructing a wreath. I find it helpful to use the same metal base that I use for my Advent wreath because it has four candle holders already built into it. However, instead of using pine to make your wreath, use Rosemary, for remembrance of course!
Place the wreath on a table in a special place, adorn it with candles and sprinkle calendula petals around it or use yellow chrysanthemums. (In our climate, fresh marigolds would be pretty difficult to find at this time of the year, but dried calendula petals or “pot marigold” still retain their beautiful color). You could also put other herbs in the wreath, depending on what you want to symbolize. There are tons of resources on the symbolism of herbs. I have listed just a few to get you started. Place pictures of loved ones inside and outside of your wreath and place any special mementos or things they loved around it as well. Take a few moments to say your own private blessing or you might invite your family to also contribute meaningful items to the altar and share stories of your loved ones. Pan de Muerto
There are lots of recipes for “Dead Bread” on the internet.
This is one that appealed to me most, located at
Also, the famous Mexican artist Frida Kahlo’s recipe for Pan De Muerto can be located on Barbara Kingsolver’s website at
1/4 cup margarine
1/4 cup milk
1/4 cup warm water (110 degrees)
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/4 teaspoons active dry yeast
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons anise seed
1/4 cup white sugar
2 eggs, beaten
2 teaspoons orange zest
1/4 cup white sugar
1/4 cup orange juice
1 tablespoon orange zest
2 tablespoons white sugar
Directions Heat the milk and the butter together in a medium saucepan, until the butter melts.
Remove from the heat and add them warm water. The mixture should be around 110 degrees F.
In a large bowl combine 1 cup of the flour, yeast, salt, anise seed and 1/4 cup of the sugar.
Beat in the warm milk mixture then add the eggs and orange zest and beat until well combined.
Stir in 1/2 cup of flour and continue adding more flour until the dough is soft.
Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead until smooth and elastic.
Place the dough into a lightly greased bowl cover with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place until doubled in size. This will take about 1 to 2 hours.
Punch the dough down and shape it into little skulls or bones.
Place dough onto a baking sheet, loosely cover with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place for about 1 hour or until just about doubled in size.
Bake in a preheated 350 degrees F oven for about 35 to 45 minutes. Remove from oven let cool slightly then brush with glaze. To make glaze: In a small saucepan combine the 1/4 cup sugar, orange juice and orange zest. Bring to a boil over medium heat and boil for 2 minutes. Brush over top of bread while still warm. Sprinkle glazed bread with white sugar. 


KrisMrsBBradley said...

Such awesome info! Thanks for sharing!

Nydia said...

I've learnt a lot this year about this beautiful holiday. Tbhaks for adding omre wisdom! :o)

Kisses from Nydia, who came from Mrs. B.'s page.

Tina Sams said...

I think it is interesting that most belief systems have some way of honoring their ancestors, and this one is so colorful and joyful!

Lady M said...

This is such a great article!! I never fully understood about Dia de los Muertos until I went to Mexico. Now when I see the beautiful sugar skulls, my heart sings. This holiday is such a wonderful way to remember those who have gone before us. And it serves as a gentle reminder to keep their memories alive all year long. Tina, I am taking Rosemary's home study course. It is wonderful. I need to renew my subscription to Essential Herbal too. It ran out and I forgot. Will be doing that this week. :-)

Tina Sams said...

Molly is taking Rosemary's course this year too - and she loves it.