For children and adults alike, the month of October conjures images of jack o'lanterns, witches, ghosts, and black cats displayed on lawns and in windows throughout the neighborhood. More recently, however, some new players have joined the cast of Halloween decorating favorites: brightly painted "sugar skulls", either displayed by themselves or attached to skeleton bodies dressed in mariachi outfits or swirling dresses. These not-so-spooky cousins of the traditional Halloween skeleton are everywhere as October approaches, from pillows to table décor to rugs, but what is their connection to Halloween? Is there a connection? Here are three interesting and important things to know about sugar skulls and their history.
"Sugar skulls" are traditionally made of real sugar. Sugar skulls date back to the 17th century, when Mexican artisans used sugar art techniques taught to them by European missionaries to produce elaborately decorated skulls -- or calaveras, as they are commonly known -- honoring the deceased. Calaveras are featured prominently in the Mexican celebration known as "El Día de los Muertos", or "Day of the Dead", which coincides with the annual Catholic observances of All Saints' Day and All Souls Day.
While some calaveras are made of clay, most are made of sugar, and all are lavishly covered with painted designs and ornamentation such as gems or feathers. The large calaveras made using the traditional methods are regarded as folk art and are generally not edible. Smaller sugar skulls made of cane sugar or chocolate are also produced, with edible decorations that can be enjoyed by revelers.
Because of the large number of sugar skulls needed for each year's celebration and the level of detail involved in decorating each one, crafters often start preparing the calaveras four to six months in advance. The tremendous effort these artisans put into their work is a reflection of how important the occasion is to the community.
"El Día de los Muertos" lasts for more than one day. Many cultures around the world -- including those in parts of Europe, Asia and Africa, as well as Latin America -- have an annual celebration or observance honoring their family and friends who have passed. Areas with a heavily Christian or Roman Catholic population, like southern Mexico, often have their celebrations rooted in the holy days of their chosen faith.
For this reason, Mexico's "El Día de los Muertos" is a bit of a misnomer, since the celebration spans two full days: All Saints' Day (November 1) and All Souls Day (November 2). The faithful believe that at midnight on All Hallows' Eve (October 31), the spirits of children who have passed away -- angelitos -- are allowed to leave Heaven for 24 hours to spend time with their families on Earth. When the angelitos return to the afterlife at the end of their visit, the souls of the adults have their 24-hour turn on Earth as well.
In preparation for the two-day event, families construct elaborate altars called ofrendas to honor their loved ones. The ofrendas are decorated with candles, flowers, and embroidered cloths, as well as with calaveras. Toys, tiny calaveras and other treats placed on the ofrenda await the angelitos. Food and drink are also left at the altar for the benefit of the spirits traveling back and forth from the afterlife. On All Hallows' Eve, many families spend time tidying the grave sites of their loved ones and keeping watch for the angelitos as midnight approaches. When the clock strikes twelve, the spirits are welcomed and the revelry begins in earnest.
"El Día de los Muertos" is not "Mexican Halloween". Because both celebrations involve spirits, graveyards and skeletons, it is a common but mistaken assumption that El Día de los Muertos and Halloween are the same holiday. Well-meaning people who want to embrace new cultural experiences may incorporate calaveras and other Day of the Dead accessories into their Halloween decor without understanding what those items symbolize. Taking the time to gather information about traditions from other parts of the world helps to promote them in a positive way.
Those who are interested in learning more about the rich traditions of El Día de los Muertos, including the artistry involved in creating "sugar skulls", will find no shortage of resources online, including MexicanSugarSkull.com.
Looking for ideas for holiday decorating? Not sure where to start? Blackbird Design Studio can help! Contact us today to schedule a consultation!