Traditional Bread for Celebrating Festival of All Souls: Pan de Muerto


Traditional Bread for Celebrating Festival of All Souls: Pan de Muerto

Tara A. Spearspan-2

The upcoming three day festival is observed October 31, November 1 and 2 each year. This celebration of the loved departed becomes a mortuary feast dominated by food and flowers of yellow (the color of death for Hispanic cultures), such as marigolds, the clemoles, oranges, guavas, bananas, pumpkin and a special traditional bread made for the occasion.


This sweet bread, usually flavored with anise and orange, is typically made into the shape of crossbones, animal, or dead folk and enjoyed with relish while sitting in the cemetery in the company of the souls of lost loved ones. You’ll also find it in every ofrenda, the home altars lovingly created by hand to honor the memory of the loved ones who have passed on. The Pan de Muerto is just one of the goodies placed on the altar to entice that missed soul to come home for a visit.

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This unique practice of pan de muerto originated in Mexico during the ancient era of human sacrifice but was modified by the Spanish missionaries in the 1500s. Pan de Muerto is an important tradition in Mexico that is a must have in the offerings of the Day of the Dead on November 2. There are several legends about its origin, as well as hundreds of bread varieties, with different shapes and flavors, all with a special meaning.

The Spaniards viewed human sacrifice as an atrocity, so they decided to eradicate the habit by coming up with a substitute ritual. The missionaries replaced the real human heart for a heart shaped wheat bread with a red sugar-coated topping to simulate blood. The pieces of bread were distributed among the people, so that more people had the honor of participating in the rite.

 Another version of how pan de Muerto was invented is that an idol amaranth was shaped like the god of war, Huitzilopochtli, who then buried with a stake in the center to symbolize a sacrifice. The pieces of this stake shaped bread were distributed among the villagers.

Other historians have revealed that the birth of this bread is based on a ritual that made the first inhabitants of Mesoamerica burying the dead with their belongings. In the book “From Our Traditions,” it is reported that the development of a bread composed of crushed amaranth seeds and toast, mixed with the blood of the sacrifices was offered in honor of Izcoxauhqui, Cuetzaltzin or Huehuetéotl.

José Luis Curiel Monteagudo, in his book “Sugary Cares, Sweets and Breads” says:The eating of the dead is for the Mexican a real pleasure. The phenomenon is treated with respect and irony; by eating death, one is challenging it.” 
Significance of the bread shapes:  The shape of day of the dead breads can be classified as follows:  Anthropomorphic: representing the human figure; Zoomorphs: figures of animals such as birds, rabbits, dogs, butterflies, scorpions or fish. Another category is Mitomorfos: representing fantastic creatures. The category of Fitomorfos has representations of various vegetables, trees, flowers, arbors.

The traditional form of pan de muerto has different meanings. For some, the upper crown represents the skull of the deceased and the shanks are placed on the sides to symbolize their bones. For others, the summit of bread symbolizes the heart of the dead and orange blossom flavor is distinctive to remember the deceased.

There are other ways to interpret the pan de muerto, for example, that the four quills shaped cross are to designate the four cardinal points, the four elements of nature or four prehispanic divinities: Quetzalcoatl-Camaxtli, Xipetotec, Tlaloc-Huitzilopochtli and Tezcatlipoca.

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In terms of structure, the current pan de muerto is comprised of four main elements, reminiscent of the deceased in his return from the underworld. The ball at the top, this represents the skull of the deceased.The four bobbins with elongated represent the bones of the deceased and tears shed by the mourners with their departure. The orange flavor is a way to remember loved ones who departed to the afterlife. Finally, the shape is circular, to shape the cycle of life and death.

Even without its religious overtones, the practice of having Pan de Muerto is a charming custom that has spread throughout the world. There is a lovely saying that best sums up what the Pan de Muerto means for Mexicans: “Take my soul, take my life, but my pan de muerto, take only a bite.”