Sugar skulls are one of the most popular symbols in Mexican culture. These colorful and sometimes edible skulls are mostly associated with the Day of the Dead holiday celebrated in November.
What do sugar skulls symbolize? Sugar skulls are a reminder of the cyclicality of life and are made to celebrate the life of lost loved ones. These skulls symbolize every man, women and child no matter age or gender, death comes to all. Larger skulls are made for adults while smaller ones are made for children.
Symbolism is deeply embedded in most cultures, but this is especially true in Mexican culture. Nothing demonstrates this better than the Day of the Dead celebration. Let’s explore this wonderful holiday and all the symbols used.
The tradition of Day of the Dead celebration dates to the 1630’s with roots in Mayan, Aztec and Toltec cultures. It has also been linked back to the Spanish conquest. It’s often confused with Halloween but its the next day, November 1st. Although, Halloween and Day of the Dead are both celebrated by most people.
Sugar skulls (calaveritas de azucar) is one the most important symbols for this holiday. White skulls are molded with the deceased person’s name written on the forehead. The skulls are decorated with a wide variety of brightly colored items such as: icing, ribbons, feathers, colored foil, beads and sweets.
The size of the skull molded depends on the age of the deceased. Larger skulls are made for adults while smaller ones are made for children. These skulls are not made to be gruesome symbol but rather to celebrate the life of loved ones lost. It is a reminder of the cyclicality of life and death comes to all.
It is believed that the gates of heaven open at midnight of October 31st and the spirits of the deceased children can reunite with their families for 24 hours. Smaller skulls are placed on the altars on November 1st to represent the lost children.
Larger skulls representing adults of lost loved ones are placed on the altars on November 2nd. On November 2nd the spirits of the adults come down to enjoy the festivities prepared for them.
Sugar skulls are so widely recognizable worldwide they are used for a wide variety of home décor, tattoos, clothing, jewelry, and especially makeup art.
Other than the obvious, sugar skulls, there is other very important symbols used for this holiday. The ofrenda is the next most recognized symbol of Dia de los Muerotos. It’s a temporary altar made by families to honor their loved ones and provide what they need on their journey.
Pictures of the deceased, and other items belonging to them, are placed on these altars as a reminder of their lives. All the ofrenda include the four basic elements: water, wind, earth and fire.
On November 2nd cigarettes and shots of mezcal are often put on the altars of adults to help their spirits reunite with loved ones.
This holiday is filled with music and dancing. Two of the more common dances are: dance of the little old men, and dance of the jaguars.
La Danza de los Viejitos – the dance of the little old men is performed by boys and young men dressed as old men. They walk around crouched over and then suddenly jump up in an energetic dance.
La Danza de los Tecuanes – the dance of the jaguars is performed to depict farm workers hunting a jaguar.
Another powerful symbol you see everywhere for this holiday is flowers. They are used in foods, elaborate doorway arches, garlands and adorn graves and altars. Flowers are a symbol of the fragility of life, and marigolds are used most often.
It is believed that the color and scent of the marigold guides the spirits to their altars. The petals are used to make a path that leads spirits from the cemetery to family homes. These flowers are also referred to as flowers of the dead.
Marigolds will be gathered for several days in preparation and are often made by children. They are made from bright and colorful tissue paper with pipe cleaners. Chrysanthemums, but only white ones, are also used on this holiday.
You will often see marigolds and monarch butterflies used together in decorations. Monarch butterflies are believed to hold the spirits of the departed because they usually arrive in Mexico each fall on November 1st.
Day of the dead bread – Pan de Muertos – this bread is an essential element of the altar and is the most popular food for this holiday. Most families will make one loaf to eat and one loaf to place in the altar. The bread is round, sweet and usually decorated with skulls and crossbones.
Marigold Tortillas –marigolds are edible and are often used in tortillas during this celebration.
Guatemalan Molletes – this is a traditional food prepared in Guatemala. Guatemala also celebrate day of the dead. It’s a sweet bread stuffed with custard, deep fried, and served in sweet syrup.
Marigold Infused Tequila– is a popular drink to toast their loved ones.
Vanilla Atoles – is a traditional non-alcoholic corn based hot drink made with corn flour, milk, vanilla, and cinnamon. It is very popular tradition and considered a comfort drink. It is usually served with a sweet cookie called hojadras.
Tamales – a very common Mexican food served during this holiday. They are basically small steamed packages made of cornhusks or banana leaves filled with tasty corn paste. There’s countless varieties but the most popular one for this holiday is made with roasted poblano peppers and queso fresco.
Mole Negro – is a complex and rich sauce made with peppers, chocolate and a wide variety of other ingredients. It’s poured over food and originally comes from the state of Oaxaca (land of the seven moles).
Tortilla Soup – Sopa Azteca – is a spicy tortilla soup that is usually served with avocado, onions, cheese, limes and pork rinds.
Chalupas – corn-based taco topped with a variety of meats, cheeses or vegetables. They’re also called Sopes and are eaten as appetizers.
Red Pozole – is a type of stew that normally includes corn, meat, and variety of other ingredients. There are numerous varieties but the red one is the most popular. Chillies are added to this stew for that extra kick
Candied Pumpkin – Calabaza en Dulce – are pumpkin slices placed in a sugar based boiling mixture. They are spiced with cinnamon and orange juice then served topped with syrup.
Horchata – is a milky drink made with rice, nuts and cinnamon. Very popular and usually found in big colorful bowls on the streets.
Pulque – is a traditional Mexican alcoholic drink and often referred to as the “nectar of the gods”, It’s made from fermented sap of the maguey plant. It is considered a type of tequila and is very popular during this holiday.
What happens to the food after day of the dead? The food that doesn’t spoil gets eaten. The food and offering aren’t really thought of as given to the dead, but prepared so they will visit, have a good time, and then go back to Mictlan. Guests will often eat the leftovers, but if the complex dishes need refrigeration, the food of the ofrenda usually gets put into the garbage.