Dia de los Muertos/Noche de Altares.

I hope your Halloween was awesome! Mine was pretty good- tons of treats (& maybe some tricks). I was pretty bummed that I didn’t get a lot of trick-or-treaters, but what can ya do. I guess times are changing.

Each year, this particular time of the season is my favorite. I love fall weather, when it’s cool but not too cold yet (well, usually, this year we had snow before Halloween), the leaves are changing (again, usually, not so much this year), and of course Halloween & Dia de Los Muertos. The Mexican Day of the Dead has always been a holiday I’ve appreciated. The concept of it is one I think more Americans should embrace.

Dia de los Muertos is a traditional Meso-American holiday dedicated to the ancestors; it honors both death and the cycle of life. In Mexico, neighbors gather in local cemeteries to share food, music, and fun with their extended community, both living and departed. The celebration acknowledges that we still have a relationship with our ancestors and loved ones that have passed away.


This year it especially hits home for me. Halloween marked the beginning of a long season of “first holidays” without my grandmother. My grandmother loved Halloween, as did her mother before her. And ever since I was a child, my Nana told me about All Saints’ Day/All Souls’ Day. She told me about all the superstitions her Irish grandmother & mother told her as a child. And those two holidays have a big tie-in with Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). The main difference being the Irish are very melancholy, sad and superstitious about it, whereas the Mexican view is much more celebratory: celebrating the dead AND the living, and reflecting but not being regretful. I love that! I’m not religious, not particularly spiritual, yet I find this to be a wonderful “holiday” that most Americans get totally wrong but could really, genuinely learn from. I also love the tradition of going to the cemetery & cleaning up & sprucing up the graves, decorating them & making them beautiful. Too many Americans forget about their deceased ancestors remains, and don’t bother to ever “visit” them… and trust me, the “Perpetual Care” you pay for ain’t so perpetual. Not only that, but opening yourself up to another culture & it’s traditions is so amazing. You learn so much, & not just about yourself.

Anyway, one of the most famous images of the Day of the Dead, aside from the sugar skull, is the Catrina, or the female skeleton. Popularized in 1913 by José Guadalupe Posada in a print/zinc etching he created of a figure he called La Calavera de la Catrinas or La Calavera Catrina.

© José Guadalupe Posada

On that same note, one of my favorite artists, Sylvia Ji, paints a lot of Catrina-themed women. I just adore her work and I think they’re so beautiful. The Catrina or Calavera is another aspect of Dia de los Muertos that makes me love it. I’m so inspired by these, as well as the imagery of Dia de los Muertos.


Last year I made tres leches coconut cupcakes for Dia de los Muertos with little hand-painted sugar skulls. I still think they were completely amazing & adorable… but I didn’t want to repeat the same thing this year; I hate reruns. I wanted to do something a bit different. My friend Xenia asked me for my grandmother’s photo to add to her altar which was chosen for Noche de Altares (A Night of Altars), an event in Santa Ana that takes place tomorrow, November 5th. I was flattered that she would think of me… but also it gave me the bug. So I thought it was a great idea to make my own! It was a very small & simple one, but I think it served the purpose. I used the traditional marigolds, but some chrysanthemums too. So here are some pictures of my altar, and once the event is over I’ll add the pictures of Xenia’s as well, or a link to her post about it.

It’s just a small, simple altar, but I think it’s beautiful. Represented in the altar: my grandmother Agnes & grandfather Clarence, my great-great-grandmother Winifred Mackin, her daughter Mary & husband Thomas Rooney, my other great-great-grandmother Frances Hebrank & her husband Henry Sonnanburg, my great-uncle Pat, my great-aunt Winnie & her husband Sam Prybuski, my uncle Kenny, my great-aunt Eleanor Sonnanburg & her husband Frank Rooney, and my great-uncle Jack Sonnanburg; all deceased. I think it’s a gorgeous tribute. So in addition to creating my own altar this year, I also made Pan de Muerto. My grandma loved my baking, and my uncle Pat couldn’t eat a lot of sugar or carbs, being a diabetic, so as my offering to them this Day of the Dead, I thought this was appropriate on so many levels. Plus, it’s a day for celebrating life too, and what’s more celebratory than baking delicious bread & enjoying it!?

PAN DE MUERTO (BREAD OF THE DEAD) (from Look What We Brought You From Mexico! by Phyllis Shalant)

Makes 8 to 10 servings


  • ¼ cup milk
  • ¼ cup (half a stick) margarine or butter, cut into 8 pieces
  • ¼ cup sugar
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 1 package active dry yeast
  • ¼ cup very warm water
  • 2 eggs
  • 3 cups all-purpose flour, unsifted
  • ½ teaspoon anise seed
  • ¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 2 teaspoons sugar


  1. Bring milk to boil and remove from heat. Stir in margarine or butter, ¼ cup sugar and salt.
  2. In large bowl, mix yeast with warm water until dissolved and let stand 5 minutes. Add the milk mixture.
  3. Separate the yolk and white of one egg. Add the yolk to the yeast mixture, but save the white for later. Now add flour to the yeast and second egg. Blend well until dough ball is formed.
  4. Flour a pastry board or work surface very well and place the dough in center. Knead until smooth. Return to large bowl and cover with dish towel. Let rise in warm place for 90 minutes. Meanwhile, grease a baking sheet and preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
  5. Knead dough again on floured surface. Now divide the dough into fourths and set one fourth aside. Roll the remaining 3 pieces into “ropes.”
  6. On greased baking sheet, pinch 3 rope ends together and braid. Finish by pinching ends together on opposite side. Divide the remaining dough in half and form 2 “bones.” Cross and lay them atop braided loaf.
  7. Cover bread with dish towel and let rise for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, in a bowl, mix anise seed, cinnamon and 2 teaspoons sugar together. In another bowl, beat egg white lightly.
  8. When 30 minutes are up, brush top of bread with egg white and sprinkle with sugar mixture, except on cross bones. Bake at 350 degrees for 35 minutes.

I made mine a bit differently. I used about a ½ teaspoon anise extract in the actual dough, seeing as how I had no anise seed. I used 100% butter, not margarine. Also, obviously, I made my bread in a round shape and covered it with a rough-shaped cut-out dough skull & crossbones. Of course, as the bread bakes & rises the shapes don’t exactly stay together but I think that adds to it. You can also paint the dough or color parts of it using food coloring. The anise didn’t make it overwhelmingly “licorice-y” at all, so don’t be afraid to do it. It actually was so subtle, I could barely taste it. I put this bread in the ‘quick & easy’ category because I was surprised at how simple it was to make. I think it definitely makes things easier if you have a stand mixer with a dough hook attachment, however. The crumb of the bread was fantastic, too.

I hope all my family had a wonderful Day of the Dead, wherever they are in the great beyond. Maybe they came to pay a visit & saw my altar for them.


“As a well-spent day brings happy sleep, so a life well used brings happy death.” Leonardo da Vinci

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