“I just don’t get the party. When someone dies, it is sad. I don’t understand.” What is Dia de Los Muertos all about?
I come from a culture of sad mourners. If we had stuck with the pure Irish way, maybe we’d be better off – with whiskey for water and three-day wakes. But my mix of ancestry as a typical American mutt seems to have cut out all of the celebration and left me with a sad funeral coupled with unsatisfied crying. Tears and an occasional song or quote is all that is left to comfort me through the funeral day, the only day when our community mourns together.
As an antidote to almost sure-fire depressive behavior, I offer you Dia de Los Muertos! It looks a touch different and comes annually. You celebrate the lives of your lost loved ones as if they were with you, in their best form, and their most joyful of ways. I invite you to have one last drink, share another meal, laugh, and joke, and sing and dance as you do best with your living loved ones.
So instead of celebrating YOUR loss, you celebrate the PERSON that was lost. What? They liked baseball? They cooked the meanest sourdough pancakes every Christmas morning? They sewed. She loved Gin gimlets and crab cakes. He read constantly. I put out a baseball, wooden spoon, bottle of Gin, sewing needle with thread and a few favorite books on a small table. I surround these items with candles and light them whenever we are home.
My kids ask me, why did you put a wooden spoon on the altar?
I describe to them with the best of my storytelling abilities what it smelled like to walk into the kitchen of my Grandparent’s house on Christmas morning. Their gorgeous tree, almost burdened with ornaments collected throughout the years, greeted my eyes when the door laden with sleigh bells opened. We were always a bit late, dragging our feet after the big family Christmas Eve party the night before but not needing coffee, as a kid with cousins running mad all around. It didn’t matter if you had already eaten, the smell and the warmth of the house made your stomach growl upon entry. Oh and the feel! The heat from the stove where my Grandpa hovered permeated every room. You had to remove those outer layers because it was so warm between all of the moving bodies and cooking in the house.
Actually both of my Grandparents had special batches of sourdough that were saved for family holidays, and each was treated like liquid gold. Handed down through the generations - it was bequeathed through the male line, so that my brother inherited the first gooey patch before he shared it with me.
I’ll never forget the dismay in my Grandpa’s eyes when my brother reported a batch of sourdough starter missing from the refrigerator one June because it looked so “moldy and gross” to the untrained eye; that situation was remedied before the first firework in July.
Grandpa VanAcker also made homemade apricot jam from his trees in the yard, which he canned to save – those topped the sourdough pancakes on December 25th, and I’m telling you, you just couldn’t get enough. There were heaping mounds of these round things and we went through them by the dozen. Nobody ever ate lunch on Christmas because breakfast went on for hours, in rounds. So, kids, the wooden spoon was what he had used to stir the batter, and it reminded me of those deliciously chaotic mornings when I was your age.
Naturally, my kids then implored me to make sourdough pancakes on the spot. At 4 pm on a Tuesday with soccer practice looming ahead and homework spread out over the table, I could only pray to locate the small bowl of moldy Tupperware in my refrigerator and resurrect my Christmas tradition now reinvented for Dia de Los Muertos.
Breakfast for dinner: a new tradition built out of my childhood one.
Watch here for an awesome Ted Talk by Klaudia Oliver that explains it all even better! And don’t forget your marigolds...Decoding the Food and Drink On A Day Of The Dead Altar.