Candles, flowers, portraits, sugar skulls, and lots of food are just some of the elements that adorn the celebrations of Day of the Dead in Mexico. But the bread is definitely the best part of this day.
In Mexico, if you want to go on a diet, you better start in January and work hard until September because from then on to the rest of the year we’re surrounded by the most delicious (not diet-friendly) meals. Of all of the great food we use to celebrate our most important traditions, the one that wins the trophy is the delicious pan de muerto, known in English as Day of the Dead Bread. Not only is this sugary treat extremely rich in flavor, but it’s also rich in history. So, why would such a yummy bread have such an eerie name? What’s the relationship between death and this bread? Keep reading to see this amazing story.
As many Mexican traditions, pan de muerto is the result of a syncretic culture. Though this bread is related to Day of the Dead celebrations, its origin isn’t precisely the celebration (though it came to be through a similar merging of traditions). While Day of the Dead took pre-Hispanic beliefs and was merged with the Catholic celebrations of All Saints Day, the story of pan de muerto was taken from a custom that had no link to any particular date.
One of the most popular theories about the origin of pan de muerto links it to the religious practice of sacrifices in Mesoamerican cultures. According to this theory, the Aztecs selected a young woman as a sacrifice to thank the gods for a good harvest. They would take her heart out when she was still alive and cover it in amaranth seeds for the priest to eat it.
Besides violence and murder, the Spanish colonizers used syncretism as a method of conquest. They mixed some of their Christian beliefs with the practices and traditions of the local civilizations. So, legend has it, they exchanged the sacrifice part with a piece of bread coated with a reddish sugar, which eventually came to be the famous pan de muerto. The Spaniards, of course, didn’t really let the newly conquered people keep their traditions out of mercy or goodwill, it was actually more of a way in which they imposed their religion. So, long story short, this sort of “bread” made with amaranth and well, the heart of the sacrificed, was exchanged for a bread with similar shape and color now to represent the idea of the Christian Eucharist.
As for its unique shape, there’s also a lot of symbolism that dates back to these times. In ancient pre-Hispanic times, iconography and symbolism were highly important. For instance, the bread's round shape represents the cycles of life and death we all go through. Beyond that, most of these cultures used the four cardinal points for scientific and religious motifs. In the case of pan de muerto, the four points honored the main gods of their pantheon. For the Aztecs, these were Quetzalcóatl (god of Wind and Wisdom), Tláloc (god of Rain, Water, and earthly fertility), Xipetotec (deity of Agriculture and Vegetation), and Tezcatlipoca (lord of the Sky and the Earth). As you can see, these central deities ruled the cosmos and the universe, and for that reason, they had to be honored in their rituals.
After the conquest, once both cultures were, let’s say, “fully” merged, the pan de muerto became this homage to death that became characteristic of Mexicans. As Mexican food expert José Luis Curiel Monteagudo explains in his book Azucarados Afanes, Dulces y Panes, the popularity of this particular type of bread is Mexican people's way of mocking death: we challenge and laugh about it by eating it. In that way, the bread's shape and elements acquired a new symbolism. The small ball in the center now represents the skull of the deceased, while the four points are now their bones.
Now, this is the basic pan de muerto you can find all over Mexico (and now in other spots throughout the world), but some Mexican states have it in different shapes and motifs. For example, the state of Oaxaca (south-eastern Mexico) is the one with more varieties with panes de muerto in the shape of animals, plants, hearts, flowers, and so on. In the central regions of the country, you can find some with literal skeleton shapes. However, it doesn’t really matter what shape it has. This delicious Day of the Dead bread has that particular flavor that connects us all with our unique traditions and gives us a sweet way to celebrate death as part of life.
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