11-01-2017

Day of the Dead Skulls

Mexico – DAY OF THE DEAD celebrations begin.  This year, the celebration actually began on October 31 and extend through today into tomorrow. It is a holiday celebrated mainly in Mexico and the Mexican immigrant community living in the United States, with variations of it also observed in other Latin American countries and other parts of the world. The Mexican celebration occurs on November 1 (All Saint’s Day) and November 2 (All Soul’s Day).

There isn’t one definition or way of observing Day of the Dead; it all depends on where you’re from (what state in Mexico or even country), but I can say that some symbols and traditions run through all festivities.

 for example, skulls and skeletons. If there is one thing everyone probably knows about Día de los Muertos, it is that these two symbols are a big part of the day, specifically sugar skulls or “calaveritas de azúcar.” If you’ve ever attended a Día de los Muertos event or seen an ofrenda (or altar), then you might have come across a white molded skull with a person’s name written on its forehead and a series of sweets and ribbons decorating the rest. And while now you might be picturing yourself eating a delicious treat, these are not sweets you’d eat in Mexico.

There’s meaning behind these molds and why they’re made out of sugar. It all dates back to the Spanish conquest. While a tradition of honoring the dead already existed in Mexico at the time, the Spaniards brought about new learnings and customs and with that the idea of molding decorations from ingredients easily available. Sugar was accessible to Mexicans at the time, even those with little money, so it was a natural choice. Once they learned that they could make these skull molds with the ingredient and water (that’s all it really is), the idea of the sugar skull evolved and grew to be an important symbol of the day.

Today, many different versions of the sugar skull exist. There are not only different sizes, but also coffins and skulls made out of chocolate and almonds (those you can eat!). But the meaning behind the calaverita remains the same.

Going back to the altar, skulls are placed as decorations to recognize the person who has passed. His or her name is written on the sugar skull’s forehead and, depending on the age of the deceased, the size of the skull might vary. e.g. smaller skulls are for those who have died young.

Though the subject matter may be considered morbid from the perspective of some other cultures, celebrants typically approach the Day of the Dead joyfully, and though it occurs roughly at the same time as Halloween, All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, the traditional mood is much brighter with emphasis on celebrating and honoring the lives of the deceased, and celebrating the continuation of life; the belief is not that death is the end, but rather the beginning of a new stage in life.

The Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico can be traced back to the indigenous peoples such as the Olmec, Zapotec, Mixtec, Mexica, Maya, P’urhépecha, and Totonac. Rituals celebrating the deaths of ancestors have been observed by these civilizations perhaps for as long as 2500–3000 years. In the post-Hispanic era, it was common to keep skulls as trophies and display them during the rituals to symbolize death and rebirth.

The festival that became the modern Day of the Dead fell in the ninth month of the Aztec calendar, about the beginning of August, and was celebrated for an entire month. The festivities were dedicated to the goddess Mictecacihuatl, known as the “Lady of the Dead”, corresponding to the modern Catrina. In most regions of Mexico, November 1st honors deceased children and infants whereas deceased adults are honored on November 2nd. A common symbol of the holiday is the skull (colloquially called calavera), which celebrants represent in masks, called calacas (colloquial term for “skeleton”), and foods such as sugar skulls, that are inscribed with the name of the recipient on the forehead. Sugar skulls are gifts that can be given to both the living and the dead. Other holiday foods include pan de muerto, a sweet egg bread made in various shapes, from plain rounds to skulls and rabbits often decorated with white frosting to look like twisted bones.