November 1st and 2nd is Día de los Muertos (or Day of the Dead), a Mexican holiday that is celebrated all over the world, especially where people from Mexico have settled. Here in San Francisco it's a huge celebration, complete with a wild, candle-lit parade through the Mission district ending in an altar exhibit in a nearby park. Since the holiday is primarily about nourishing and celebrating our deceased loved ones, there are a lot of food and food related crafts associated with the holiday.
Special altars or ofrendas are created for Día de los Muertos. They usually have a picture of the deceased, brightly colored paper festoons with cut-out designs, and candles and brightly colored flowers, often marigolds. Also included are the favorite foods of the deceased; traditional Mexican offerings include mole or tamales. It is not unusual to see bottles of soda or booze as well, although a glass of water to refresh the returning soul is more typical. Favorite possessions or other mementos of the deceased, incense, little coffins made of sugar and items representing the four elements (earth, air, water, and fire) are also common.
Decorated sugar skulls are perhaps the most well-known Día de los Muertos item. You can buy them in shops throughout Mexican neighborhoods or you can make your own using skull-shaped molds and icing sugar. The website MexicanSugarSkull.com is perhaps the best source for sugar skull-making supplies, including molds in various sizes, meringue powder, undecorated skulls, colored foil and special bright food coloring. The skulls can also be made with chocolate.
Another important offering on the Día de los Muertos altar is the pan de muertos, an anise-flavored egg bread that is usually shaped in an oval (said to be the shape of the soul) and decorated with bright colored pieces of dough and sugar. The bread can also made into round, skull and bone shapes. There are many recipes available for pan de muertos, such as this one from allrecipes.com.
Bright, colorful and overflowing with offerings, the Día de los Muertos altar is about honoring loved ones who have died and offers a celebratory approach to death and mourning. MexicanSugarSkull has an excellent history of the holiday here.
(Images: altar, skulls from MexicanSugarSkull, and bread by Ann Murdy)
Related: Champurrado: Mexican Hot Chocolate