San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

It’s Time to Get Ready for the Return of the Dead

When talking about the dead around Halloween time, some think about ghouls and goblins and things that go bump in the night. Others think of sadness, horror and fear. But for Mexicans, it’s fiesta time, in celebration of Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), Nov. 2.

Mexicans believe the day opens a window to the world of the deceased, when those left behind can reunite with their loved ones. It is a tradition that mixes indigenous and Catholic rituals and beliefs.

Traditionally, the fiesta starts on Oct. 31 with 12 bell chimes at noon to announce the arrival of dead children. Friends and family wait for them at their homes with tables laden with white flowers, candles – one for every child in the family – glasses of water and a plate of salt, to purify the soul. Toys and incense are set out as well. Later they offer the dead children chocolate, bread and fruit.

On Nov. 1 at noon, churches ring bells to bid a solemn farewell to deceased kids and then welcome adults with 12 more chimes. They are offered yellow cempasúchil (marigold) flowers, black candlesticks with long candles, food offerings, water and salt. Later, the family gets together to pray the rosary and light a candle dedicated to someone special. At the end of the ceremony, another candle is lit for forgotten souls. Chairs are readied for the departed, and some families make a bed for them.

On Nov. 2, 12 more bells announce the departure of the dead at noon. It’s customary to eat rice, chicken and mole on this day. The following day, more offerings are made.

Traditionally there is also an “altar de muertos” (altar of the dead), decorated with different motifs and usually bearing the favorite meal of the deceased, pan de muerto (see sidebar), beverages and photos.

According to members of the Mexican community in Costa Rica, some families organize a picnic at the cemetery, where they plant flowers, paint the tomb and set a “table” with food on the grave site. Some relatives even bring a mariachi band to help celebrate.

The Mexico Institute in the eastern San José neighborhood of Los Yoses has scheduled Nov. 1 as the day to celebrate with an altar de muerto installation and sales of traditional food and beverages starting at 5 p.m.

For more information, call the institute at 2283-2333, ext. 204.


Pan de Muerto

Pan de muerto (bread of the dead) is a must for any Día de los Muertos table.


5 cups flour

3 tbs yeast

5 whole eggs

5 egg yolks

2 sticks butter

1 cup sugar

3 tbs agua de azahar (available in drugstores as espíritu de azahar)

1 tbs orange zest

1 pinch salt

Sugar for dusting


Dissolve the yeast in four tablespoons warm water, add half a cup of flour and make a soft ball of dough. Let rise for 15 minutes until double in size.

Mix the rest of the flour, salt and sugar. Make a well in the dough and put in the middle three whole eggs, five yolks, butter, orange zest and agua de azahar. Knead well.

Add the small ball of yeast dough and knead again. Let sit in a warm place for an hour until nearly double in size.

Knead again. Shape the bread in round loaves or in the shape of skulls. Place in greased molds.

Beat the remaining two eggs. Decorate the loaves with pieces of dough rolled out to resemble bones or tears; use some of the beaten egg to attach them.

Glaze the entire loaves with the remaining beaten egg and dust with sugar.

Bake in a preheated 350 F oven for 30 to 40 minutes. Let cool and store in a warm, dry place.



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