I’m sorry I wasn’t raised with the Day of the Dead. Sure, Halloween’s great, but there’s something so magical, mythical, and mysterious about this pagan-Catholic mash-up. It’s a holiday suited for grownups.
Cooks, especially. But we’ll get to that in a moment.
My first experience with Day of the Dead was in my husband’s village of Varinella in Piedmont. The day was almost over—All Soul’s Day, in Catholic parlance—and the gates of the walled cemetery a few paces outside of town would soon be locked.
I knew that Claudio’s relatives had visited earlier to clean the family graves and dress them with flowers. As usual, Claudio put things off until the last minute. But today, his procrastination netted positive results.
Because of it, we arrived at dusk, when the cemetery was its most atmospheric. In the fading twilight, dozens of votive candles glowed, casting a flickered light on the faces of the deceased, who were immortalized in photographs embedded behind glass in the gravestones. Initially it all seemed spooky, but it was beautiful too, with those pools of golden candlelight, fresh flowers, and murmuring visitors.
A number of people were still wandering around when we arrived. They greeted us, asked about Claudio’s relatives, both living and dead, then continued on their way, spotting more friends—living and dead—and stopping to greet them too. Claudio and I searched for those who had once been part of his life. I soon realized that for the folks in this village, the Day of the Dead was like a passegiatta or evening stroll through the cemetery. It was a time to visit, to socialize, to reminisce. It just so happened that some of the people you met along the way were dead.
They say that Mexicans are take Day of the Dead rituals to the most extreme. Their unique traditions stem from the forced union between indigenous cults and the Catholicism of invading Spaniards. Unable to snuff out longstanding behaviors, the Spaniards wedged Aztec rituals for the dead, held at harvest time, into All Saints Day and All Souls Day (November 1 and 2) and gave everything a religious veneer.
The Aztecs shared their first feast after harvest with the dead, who returned for 24 hours to be amongst the living. Today, Mexican families will cook up their loved ones’ favorite meals, leaving their portions on the familial altar and consuming the rest in a feast. These offerings sit alongside photos of the dead, which invite the souls to come party; pictures of other souls in purgatory, who pray for the deceased to escape that benighted holding pen; and violet candles, which represent mourning. Four candles arranged in a cross indicate the four cardinal points, helping the souls get oriented and navigate home. Likewise, the yellow and orange flowers, representing rays of sunlight, are placed in a straight line to show souls their path home.
Hungry though they be, souls cannot eat. And so they inhale the aromas. It’s said that, the day after, neither food nor cigarettes left on the altar have any flavor left. The spirits have sucked it all away.
If I weren’t in the midst of a kitchen renovation right now, without sink or stove, I’d cook up my mother’s favorite chicken casserole recipe—a classic ’60s-housewife concoction using canned mushroom soup, dried Lipton’s onion soup, and Uncle Ben’s rice. (I confess, I loved it too.)
Instead, I’ll go to Veniero’s, the Italian bakery in my old East Village neighborhood, and pick up some Saints Bones (ossa di morti; recipes here and here), made of sugar, flour, and clove—sweet treats left for the youngest departed souls. I’ll light a candle next to my old family photos, line up some flowers, and greet whomever arrives.