Viva la Vida! Bringing a Day of the Dead Party to Life
Día de Muertos is a multi-cultural happening where the “death is a part of life” mindset prevails. Bring this colorful, spiritual, evolving and very Mexican tradition to your friends and family with these ideas.
by Victoria D’Amato-Moran
Fall has arrived, and in living color. And following the change of season and cooler temperatures comes October 31 and Halloween. This favorite American holiday gives the avid party host a host of excuses to get creative with spooky costumes, goth party accessories and hauntingly fun cocktails. However, if you’re looking for a more soulful kind of celebration, head south of the border in mind and spirit, where Dia de Los Muertos or “Day of the Dead” (November 1st and 2nd) stands as the fall’s most anticipated day of celebration.
Day of the Dead also has much in common with American Thanksgiving, as it allows us to honor our passed-on loved ones and the community we live in. Perhaps, then, it is no surprise that although Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico remain true to its Latin and Aztec roots, people of all races and religions worldwide are embracing this quintessentially Mexican celebration of life past and present. In Mexico, neighbors gather in local cemeteries to share food, tequila, music, and fun with their extended community, both living and departed—traditions that can be recreated anywhere with the right amount of care and attention to detail.
Additionally, with a wealth of so many quality tequilas available, there is no better time to celebrate one of the spirit’s most time-honored associations. The cocktails, food and entertaining ideas on the on this page capture the color of the holiday as well as the artisanal care put into Day of the Dead preparations intended to be so alluring they could literally bring loved ones back to life.
Lively Food Offerings
Foods prepared for Day of the Dead include tamales, assorted regional Mexican finger foods and pan de muerto (bread baked into a human form). Many people believe it is good luck to bite into a plastic toy skeleton hidden by the baker in each loaf, or take a bite out of the skull to symbolically “take a bite of death,” inoculating one against the fear of death. Sweets enjoyed in the feast include cookies, chocolates and sugar skulls. According to tradition, edible gifts are more prized if the skull or skeleton has one’s own name written on it with icing.
• Serve bite-sized Mexican fare such as taquitos, mini-empanadas or mini-quesadillas that can be easily consumed between tequila sipping flights or balanced with a cocktail.
• Corrido’s grilled shrimp recipe with a tequila-based avocado sauce (below) is an ideal menu option as it can be served either as a main course or portioned as appetizers.
• Kah Day of the Dead Tequila is a natural choice for sipping, flights and cocktails, not only because of its adherence to generations of tequila-making traditions, but also its iconic sugar skull-inspired bottles.
• Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods and other better supermarkets offer a vegetarian soy chorizo that is as delicious as the real thing, but lower in fat and calories.
When In Oaxaca: How Locals Celebrate the Days of the Dead
In Mexico and elsewhere, Dia de Los Muertos décor is not restricted to gravesites. Mexican families set up lavish home altars dedicated to the same relatives with flowers such as yellow and orange marigolds and chrysanthemums. Even more compelling is that there are interesting variations in how Day of the Dead is observed in different parts of Mexico. Celebration in large cities like Oaxaca lean more toward the secular than the sacred. Also, foodstuffs and altar construction are determined by what natural resources are available in a given area.
When planning your own Dia de Los Muertos, you may find these unique traditions and conversation-starters inspiring, especially as you and your guests contemplate life, death and other wonders of the universe:
• Townspeople dress up as ghouls, ghosts, mummies and skeletons and parade through the town carrying an open coffin.
• The “corpse” inside smiles as it is carried through the narrow streets of town. Local vendors toss oranges inside as the procession makes its way past their markets. Lucky “corpses” can also catch flowers, fruits, and candies.
• After families arrange altars in their homes with flowers and edibles, pictures of deceased family members are added. In the late afternoon, special all-night burning candles are lit.
• On the second day of the Dia de Los Muertos observance, people head to the cemetery with hoes, picks and shovels, as well as flowers, candles, blankets, and picnic baskets. Grave sites are weeded and the dirt raked smooth, while crypts are scrubbed, swept and adorned with flowers, bread, fruit and candles. The families will spend the entire night in the cemeteries, with additional ambiance provided by guitar players or radios
• Handmade skeleton figurines, called calacas, are especially popular. Calacas usually show an active and joyful afterlife, and take the forms of musicians, generals on horseback and skeletal brides and grooms.
• Los Dias de los Muertos, like Halloween, evolved with the influences of the Celtics, the Romans, and the Christian holy days of All Saints Day and All Souls Day. However, added influences from the Aztec people of Mexico set this celebration apart.
• The Aztecs believed in an afterlife where the spirits of their dead would return as hummingbirds and butterflies. Even images carved in the ancient Aztec monuments show this belief – the linking the spirits of the dead and the Monarch butterfly.
Bringing More Life to Day of the Dead
Though Day of the Dead décor should be vibrant and expressive, you don’t have to kill your budget to make an impact. Partycheap.com offers a multitude of candleholders, decorative beads, wall hangings and party favors, many of which are customizable. Also, check out www.worldfolkart.org for wonderful, earthy adornments for your altar. We like Day of the Playing Cards ($5.95) and Day of the Dead Candles, ($19.95). A Day of the Dead Papel Picado Streamer ($6.00), like this one, is a traditional popular art handmade by artisans in Mexico.
The Grateful “Dead” –Dia de los Muertos Festivals From Coast to Coast
There are hundreds of Day of the Dead celebrations throughout the U.S. that take on the character of their geography, climate and population. While some observances remain true to tradition, others are staged with contemporary spins, such as charity fundraisers, multi-cultural celebrations and performing and visual arts exhibitions. What all share, however, is that they inspire many ways to keep conversation lively and memories immortal.
- In Los Angeles the Self Help Graphics & Art Mexican-American Cultural Center (www.selfhelpgraphics.com) packages its celebration to incorporate both traditional and political elements.
- Los Angeles’ Olivera Street community (www.olvera-street.com/html/fiestas.html) stages a traditional celebration this November 1 and 2, featuring beautifully decorated altars, exhibits and entertainment.
- San Francisco’s Dayofthedeadsf.org, mixes elements of art gallery event and community gathering at its Garfield Square locale,
- The celebrations at National Museum of the American Indian in Washington D.C. and New York City are hands-on affairs, with interactive activities that include docent-led art walks, sugar skull-making and craft workshops. (www.nmai.si.edu)
- Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood has played host to one of the largest Day of the Dead celebrations in the U.S., anchored by the National Museum of Mexican Art (www.nationalmuseumofmexicanart.org).
- Phoenix, AZ plays host to more than a half dozen Dia de Los Muertos celebrations, ranging from art gallery walks spotlighting Mexican-American artists to a Zombie Prom that puts fun into the old traditions. (www.azcentral.com/ent/dead/articles/dead-events.html)
Corrido Lime Shrimp with Spicy Haas Avocado Puree
11⁄2 oz Corrido Cristalino Blanco Tequila
3 fresh avocados
3 T fresh lime juice
3⁄4 c sour cream
2 jalapenos, seeded and chopped
Salt and black pepper to taste
Combine Corrido Cristalino tequila, avocados, lime juice, sour cream and jalapeno in a blender and puree until smooth. Place in a covered airtight container and refrigerate until serving.
Grilled Lime Shrimp:
2 limes, juiced and zested
1⁄2 croughly chopped cilantro
1 t ground cumin
4 T extra virgin olive oil
2 lbs large shrimp, peeled and deveined, tails intact
Springs cilantro for garnish
Fresh Salt and black pepper to taste
In a large mixing bowl, combine the lime juice, zest, cilantro, cumin and oil and whisk well. Add the shrimp and toss to coat. Do not marinate the shrimp longer than five minutes or the lime juice will begin cooking the shrimp. Preheat your barbeque grill to medium high heat. Season the shrimp with salt and pepper to taste and grill for two to three minutes on each side.
KAH Tequila Cocktail Recipes:
1 1/2 oz KAH Blanco Tequila
1/2 oz Tamarindo Paste
3 oz , fresh or frozen hibiscus juice*
1 oz agave nectar
1.0 oz fresh lime juice
Build in a mixing glass. Add ice. Shake well. Strain into a collins style glass. Garnish with Marigold, Lemon and Lime wheels.
*Hibiscus juice: 1 cup dried Hibiscus Flowers, 2 cups hot water. Let sit until cool. Strain juice from flowers.
Spirit of KAH
1.5 oz KAH Anejo Tequila
0.5 oz Sweet Vermouth
0.5 oz D’Aristi Xtabentun Honey Anise Liqueur
4 Dashes Fee Brothers Aztec Chocolate Bitters
1/4 oz fresh lemon
Build in a mixing glass. Add ice. Stir briskly until mixing glass becomes ice cold. Strain over Glace Luxury Ice (optional)
in a vintage cocktail glass. Garnish with marigold petals.