Dawn Wink: Dewdrops

Landscape, Language, Teaching, Wildness, Beauty, Imagination

Day of the Dead and Rhythms of Life


Cut tissue paper - Papel picado

Cut tissue paper – Papel picado Photo© Wynn Wink-Moran


A baking and cooking flurry to send homemade food and snacks back to college with Wyatt.

“Mom, are you going to make pan de muerto (bread of the dead)?” Wyatt asked me on the phone from his dorm room three hours away. Life has been a swirl of blessed busyness in the past weeks with my focus on that day and that place. I realized that Day of the Dead, Día de los Muertos, was here.

This call came on the heels of Wyatt coming home from college briefly a few weeks ago and telling me, “Mom, do you know what I really miss? Home cooked snacks and food.” This inspired a 12-hour flurry of baking and cooking, as I prepared a big box of food to send back to Colorado with him.

I wrote this piece about Dia de los Muertos last year. These recipes and rhythms will fill our day today, as we create the altar, take our the sugar skulls, and Yes, Wyatt, make pan de muerto. A box will be on its way to you on Monday.

If you make pan de muerto or celebrate Dia de los Muertos today, I’d love to hear from you and share these traditions together. Dawn

Altar, ofrenda

Altar, ofrenda

November 1 approaches, ushering in one of the most sacred rhythms of the year for our family – the Mexican tradition of Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos). Known in English as All Soul’s Day, this tradition honors loved ones who have passed. While I wasn’t raised with this tradition, it speaks deeply to me and is an integral thread in the fabric of our family.

Every year, we create the altar of loved ones, make the traditional foods, scatter the marigold flowers, and light the candles. There is something deeply soothing about these rhythms, this honoring, the sense of connection between past and present, and the familiar scents and sounds. As I place each photo of the altar, I feel a tug on the other end of the thread between myself and the loved one.

As I sit two days before Day of the Dead, I find myself  late with everything this year. While The Blizzard that Never Was, known to the world as Storm Atlas, took place 1,500 miles from away, the events there rocked my world off its axis and scattered the rhythms of life that make the ground firm under our feet. People ask how my parents are doing on the ranch.

Again and again, I quote my dad, “This is a tough ol’ deal.”

As I write by the light of my oil lantern in the pre-dawn dark, I think of the preparations happening right now, all over Mexico and the Southwest. People have been preparing for the past month and on the evening of November 1, families and friends fill cemeteries, cleaning the graves of their loved ones, bringing food, candles, and song.

Cemetery in Mexico, Day of the Dead

Cemetery in Mexico, Day of the Dead

Candles flicker softly on altars (ofrendas) composed of photos, favorites foods and drink of loved ones in homes. Markets fill with overflowing baskets of marigolds, whose petals are sprinkled on altars, as they are known to lead the spirits home. Kitchens fill with the warmth and fragrances of the traditional foods of tamales, mole (chocolate and chile sauce over chicken), and the sweet, earthy scents of pan de muerto (bread of the dead). The scraping sounds of spoons mixing sugar in bowls to form the traditional decorated sugar skulls join the fragrances. Colorful papel picado (squares of tissue paper cut into designs and strung together) hang inside homes and flutter in the breezes outside.

Making pan de muerto.

Making pan de muerto.

Pan de muerto and decorating sugar skulls are two of the traditions our children most look forward to every year. Essential in understand these traditions is to know that in the Mexican culture skulls represent life. The tradition of skulls as poison and danger is foreign in the Mexican tradition. Pan de muerto is traditionally shaped into the forms of skulls and bones to represent life. “Mom, when are we going to make the pan de muerto?” Wynn asked me yesterday.

We use Frida Kahlo‘s recipe and the kids wait all year to eat the small, sweet bread, decorated with brightly colored sugar, that they’ve shaped and decorated right out of the oven.

Her words poked a hole through the curtain that I’ve felt around me ever since the blizzard and in came a shaft of light, reminding me that is the traditions and rhythms of life that help to create a sense of our Place in the world. I’ve learned that it is when we least feel like putting energy into these rhythms, is when we need them the most.

Grandma Janet

Grandma Janet

Tomorrow, we’ll bring out the box, packed away through the year, filled with calaveras (skeletons), papel picado, books about Day of the Dead, and collected treasures for our altar. I’ll lift the photos of Noé’s parents and my grandparents and great grandparents from the wall, dust them, and place them on the altar. I know of two more spirits who will be honored this year, a beloved mother of one friend and brother of another. I will include candles for both on our altar.

The new addition to our altar this year will be the small figure of a cow and all it represents. And perhaps in doing so, create a bit of firm ground within our new landscape. 

Frida Kahlo’s Pan de Muerto

This recipe makes 30 small breads. The hard part is making them look like she did: shaped like skulls and dancing whirligig bones. Just making it tasty is not complicated, but you do have to start the dough the evening before you’re going to eat, then bake them just beforehand.

Noé's parents, Manuela and Amadeo Villarreal

Noé’s parents, Manuela and Amadeo Villarreal

7 ½ cups white flour

2 cups sugar

1 ¼ cup butter

2 pkgs active dry yeast, dissolved in 5 tbsp warm milk

12 eggs

2 tsp cinnamon

2 tsp vanilla 

pan de muerto

pan de muerto Photo © Wynn Wink-Moran

Put flour into a large bowl, cut in the butter, make a well in the center and pour in the yeast and milk, eggs, cinnamon and vanilla. Work it with a spoon, then your hands, until it pulls away from the sides of the bowl. If dough is too soft, knead in more flour. Shape into a ball, grease and flour it lightly, and let stand in a warm place for 2 ½ hours, until doubled. Refrigerate overnight.

Shape chilled dough into balls the size of a peach. Then shape or decorate them in any way that makes you think of your deceased ancestors. Place on greased baking sheets and let rise until doubled, about 1 ½ hours. Dust with sugar and cinnamon, bake at 350 for 30 minutes, until the bottoms sound hollow when tapped.


Sugar skull Photo @ Wynn Wink-Moran

Sugar skull Photo @ Wynn Wink-Moran

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Author: Dawn Wink

Dawn Wink is a writer and educator whose work explores language, landscape, wildness, beauty, and imagination.

34 thoughts on “Day of the Dead and Rhythms of Life

  1. Pingback: Día de los Muertos – Day of the Dead | Dawn Wink: Dewdrops

  2. Hi Dawn! This was a great piece. I can’t believe you have a don’t in college!!? You don’t look old enough. He is lucky yo have a good mom. You are a lovely, smart and personable woman. I love Dia de los Muertos. Did you see Book of Life? Loved it. I guess one of your children is a photographer? I am assuming from the surname in the copyright. Awesome pics! The surgar skull angle is very artistic.

    I forgot to tell you there is a video of you and my friend Betsy on my YouTube channel. I embedded it here… http://myvoyagethroughtime.wordpress.com/2014/11/08/highlights-and-lowlight-of-the-day-thwc-2014-nov-7/ There are other conference videos here… http://m.youtube.com/#/user/myvoyagethroughtime?desktop_uri=%2Fuser%2Fmyvoyagethroughtime

    Take care!

    • I mean son not don’t and to not yo. :/

    • Dear Felicia, of course, I love to hear that you can’t believe I have a son in college. He is thriving in college. A real gift to connect at the Hillerman Conference.I love to know that we share our passion for Dia de los Muertos. No, I haven’t seen Book of Life. glad to know that you loved it! I’ll see one day. My daughter, Wynn, is the photographer. She has such an eye for photography. Thank you so much for the videos.
      Take good care!

  3. Heather, would love to share this time at our house with you… thanks so much for connecting. We share in spirit across the miles!

  4. I would love to be at your house for this holiday… thank you for sharing the warmth and light with all of us!

  5. Thank you for sharing how you and family celebrate this beautiful day. We have been in Mexico to experience dia de los muertos and learned its meaning. Your warm words are always especially meaningful to me ! Couldn’t be because I love and respect you so much ! Cathy

    • Cathy, you’ve been in Mexico to experience Día de los Muertos? Oh, how wonderful! The only time I experienced this in Mexico was when I was 16 and living in Chihuahua. It is definitely on The List to return one day for this time. Thank you so much for sharing these experiences. Love, love and miss you! Dawn

  6. Now I’m hungry; I just love this time of year (harvest and post harvest), especially this year because I recently retired and can better take in the changes of the seasons. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts, Dan

    • Dan, “Now I’m hungry.” This made me chuckle. Made me hungry, too! Wish I could bundle up some of these scents and food and send. Yes, the changing of the seasons—there is something about this time of year that does usher in a time of reflection and appreciation. Congratulations on your recent retirement! Enjoy taking in the changes of the seasons, Dawn

  7. Penny, oh, your best friend and former husband. What powerful new honorings on your altar this year. Yes, I would imagine some good cries and so missing your best friend. I think of you today, Penny, and lift thoughts in memory of your dear ones. Yes—”May our ancestors—those who pass before us—celebrate what they enjoyed in life, wrapped in love!”

  8. This year my Dia de Los Muertos altar included photos of my best friend, a who was a wonderful artist, and my second husband, an entertainer and musician. Both passed away this year. I had a couple of good cries. And collected many good sweet memories. How much I miss them, my best friend most of all. May our ancestors—those who pass before us—celebrate what they enjoyed in life, wrapped in love!

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  11. Dearest Dawn,
    I have been looking forward to post ever since Raven’s Time and it was even better than expected! Thank you for sharing the meaning and history of this special event. I wondered about the little cow – I knew you would include them somewhere. Hugs to you!

  12. A beautiful tradition! Thanks for sending the great pics too. Good to see the kids and Noe’s parents and to have the recipe. You write w/your ‘soul’. I love it! My heart is w/your parents and I think of them everyday. I sent a Halloween/comfort card to them. I may call them too. BTW, Todd is 31 today. I clearly remember being at the ranch late in that pregnancy and Tom Algar saying something funny about how huge I looked. Todd did weight 10 Lbs. 4 oz. He looked pretty ‘beaten up’ at birth. Dennis would be proud of the young man he has become! I send you love….today and everyday, Winkie! (To the kids and Noe’ too)

    “Nancy Yates” 🙂

    Sent from my iPad

  13. Beautiful, Dawn!

  14. Just lovely, Dawn!!! I can almost taste the pan de muerto. I love the custom of honoring those who have gone before. Thank you for sharing this! Peggy

    • Hi Peggy, Oh that pan de muerto is divine, truly. The kids sort of stand around the oven when they know it’s about to come out. I love the custom of honoring those who have gone before, too. There is just something deeply connecting, I find. Something that touches the soul. So grateful to share with you! Love, Dawn

  15. Thank you Dawn for the great article. I enjoying getting to know more about All Souls Day.

    • Harriette, I am grateful to share All Soul’s Day, and all of its traditions which have so enriched life, with you. Thanks so much for taking the time to connect. Dawn

  16. Thank you for explaining tradition of the skulls and showing us the store with the collection of skeletons. I have a completely different prospective of a skeleton. Hugs……and love!

    • Dear Diane, I was thinking of you and Donna as I wrote. I thought of our looking at the skeletons and skulls and what a different lens this all is to experience skulls as LIFE. I am so grateful that we shared that time together and that we now share this tradition! Love to you! Dawn

  17. What a nice tradition! Everyone should ( or could) have valid reason to celebrate this day! I think I will do this in my own way to honor the many loved ones that have passed on!!! May God Bless you & your celebration!
    Love to all, Micki

  18. Awesome, Dawn. What a beautiful tradition! And Wynn, nice photos!!!

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