Across the world, death is viewed in different ways. In European culture, death is often associated with the emergence of all evil, fear and sadness. But in other parts of the world, death can be a celebration of the lives of the deceased for those close to them. And when it comes to the “celebration of death,” one of the most colorful and memorable celebrations can be found in Mexico. Characterized by their “Mexican skull” or “sugar skull”, this celebration, which may seem strange to us, looks more like a festival than a day of mourning. So what is the story behind the Mexican skull and how it achieved cult status in Mexico ?
The Mexican skull is a symbol of the Day of the Dead in Mexico
“Day of the Dead” is a very interesting holiday celebrated in central and southern Mexico on November 1st and 2nd every year. Even though it coincides with Catholic Halloween Day in Europe and North America, the Mexican people have managed to “combine” this with their own ancient beliefs to honor dead loved ones..
Mexicans believe the Gates of Heaven open on October 31, and the spirits of all dead children (called angelitos) are allowed to reunite with their families for 24 hours. On November 2, the spirits of adults descend to join the festivities that have been prepared for them.
Traditional festivities with Mexican skulls
In a large number of Indian villages, beautiful altars (ofrendas) are made in every house. These altars are decorated with candles, bouquets of flowers (wild marigolds, called “cempasuchil” and rooster combs in bright red), pieces of fruit, peanuts, turkey platters, tortillas and a special bread. , called the Bread of the Dead. On the altar there must be plenty of food, bottles of soda, hot chocolate and water for weary spirits.
Toys and treats are left for children’s minds. On November 2nd, cigarettes and glasses of mezcal are offered for the spirits of adults. The little folk art is buying small Mexican skulls and sugar skulls in the markets for the finishing touch of the celebration..
Here are the traditional altars made for the dead in Mexico
The Day of the Dead is a very dear celebration for these autonomous people who live above all in a rural environment. Many families spend more than two months’ salary to honor deceased loved ones. Mexicans believe very much in the family, for them it is a sacred institution. And altars are what brings family together for them.
On the afternoon of November 2nd, the celebrations are moved to the cemeteries. We clean graves, play cards, listen to local music and remember the dead. Tradition brings the village together. The Day of the Dead is becoming more and more popular in Europe and the United States, perhaps due to our fascination with mysticism..
Mexican death skull makeup is very popular
Over the years, some parts of the celebration have remained, such as the altars, while others have disappeared. People start going to cemeteries on November 2 to spend time with their families around the graves of their deceased loved ones. This is where the little sugar skulls begin to appear on the graves of the dead.
Sugar skulls are very important for altars and it is exactly these that are then taken to cemeteries. Over the years, these sweet little skulls get bigger and bigger and turn into decorations all over cities in Mexico as the Day of the Dead approaches. So what exactly does the Mexican skull mean and what are its roots ?
Skull makeup inspired by Mexican tradition
The history of the Mexican skull dates back to prehistoric times when the skull was a prominent figure in many aspects in Mesoamerican societies. One of the representations of the skull was the “tzompantli”: a wooden grid where the skulls of prisoners of war or human sacrifices were displayed..
Mesoamerican civilizations believed in spiritual life after death, and these skulls were offerings to the god of the underworld who guaranteed safe passage to the land he ruled. The tzompantli can also be an altar illustrating the passage from earthly life to spiritual life. It is not uncommon to find Mexican skulls decorated exactly with the face of this god.
With the arrival of the Spanish conquerors and their religion, these traditions were almost lost and yet part of them was kept alive by keeping the figure of the skull in a sweet version placed on the altars as an offering for the dead..
Mexican dead donuts are always very colorful
These sweets are made from a paste called “alfenique” which is a mixture of sugar, hot water, lemon and other ingredients. A modular mass close to caramel is created. This paste allows artists to modulate it into the shape of a skull and decorate it. Of course depending on where you see these skulls, you will find that a large part of them are neither alfenique nor chocolate. And since these little skulls can be found all over Mexico, some prefer to make these sweets from other ingredients like almonds, honey, amaranth and even candy. The reason for the different sizes of the skulls, besides for decorative reasons, is the fact that they can represent children and adults..
Why then are these little skulls decorated with colorful decorative elements instead of simply representing the mold of the skull? Are these just decorative reasons? No, not exactly. Everything around the Day of the Dead is bright and colorful and especially the decorations. And if the sweet little skulls are displayed on the altars, then they must be decorated with bright icing and bright colors to accentuate the orange hair, big red eyes and the big white smile of the skull..
These peoples who celebrate the lives led by those who are already dead
The reason why this holiday revolving around death is so colorful instead of sad is because these people celebrate the lives led by those who are already dead. This is not just a day of mourning where stories are told for the deaths at their graves. It is a day to remember their lives and the impact they had on ours. For Mexicans, just because a person is dead does not mean they are missing, because they continue to live in the hearts of the living..
Of course, sugar skulls can be decorated in all kinds of colors, but when people paint their faces as if they were skulls of the dead, the colors they use have definite meanings. Red represents blood; orange is the sun; yellow represents Mexican marigold (which represents death in itself); the color purple is pain; pink and white are for hope, purity, celebration; and finally the black represents the land of death.
There are plenty of representations of the Mexican skull
Gifting someone living a sugar skull with their name written on it, no matter if it is a friend or family member is also a tradition around the Day of the Dead in Mexico. . Some may find it a little strange or they may think it is some kind of prank. But the reason for doing this is quite simple, and it is because this person means something to the one who gives him the skull and reserves a place for it in the underworld after death. Death is the only thing that is certain in the living world, so don’t be surprised if you see sugar skulls with names written on them..
There are plenty of representations of the Mexican skull, no matter if it’s a picture, an ornament, a sweet skull, or even makeup. Often you can see a Mexican skull with a rose, but then what does it mean? Even if there, once again, the variations are numerous, the skull with a rose underlines life with its delicacy or death with its triumph. The style of the representation can give a gothic atmosphere or a joyful meaning.
Today Mexicans continue to have high regard for the meaning of the Mexican skull. Often this concept goes beyond the Day of the Dead. In fact, skulls of the dead in t-shirts are very popular in this country. This is also the case with tattoos. As you recognize the meaning of the Mexican skull of the dead, you will very quickly realize that this symbol goes beyond the Day of the Dead or the decoration..
Make up your face in a skull, a Mexican tradition
In addition to the sweet Mexican skulls, what is also very popular is to paint or make up your face in Mexican skull. This tradition is a mixture of Catholic beliefs with the religions of the Mexican peoples. Again, for those unfamiliar with Mexican culture, this can seem strange and even scary. But we must not forget that the skull has only a positive meaning and very different from the skeletons and spirits of Halloween.
Although painting one’s face is not exactly an ancient tradition, what makes it significant is the image of the skull. Skulls, called “calaveras” or “calacas” in Mexico, were also a very important part of All Saints’ Day celebrations in medieval Europe, especially after the Black Death ravaged populations in 1300. Artists across Europe , authors and poets were inspired by the theme of “memento mori” and the “dance of the dead”. Many works of art and books depict skeletons or portraits with skulls.
At the same time, in Mexico, the Aztec culture would believe that life on earth is but an illusion and death is a positive step towards a higher level of consciousness. For these peoples, the skulls of the dead were positive symbols, not only of death, but also of rebirth..
The “elegant” skull has become an important symbol in the tradition of the Day of the Dead
Mexicans wear traditional masks and the tradition of painting one’s face like a skull originated as a variation of this practice. Masks have always been very strong objects in many cultures and painting your face as a skull is a way to overcome the fear of death, to act recklessly and to go beyond the wrongdoings prohibited at other times of the year..
At first glance, skulls may not appear elegant or feminine, but the “elegant” skull has become an important symbol in the Day of the Dead tradition. The “Calavera Catrina” is a 1913 engraving made by José Guadalupe Posada. The image shows a skeleton dressed as a rich lady as a reminder that even the rich and beautiful carry death within them. Nowadays, the calavera catrina is an inspiration for women to paint their faces in a way that is both beautiful and frightening. In Mexico it is usual to see “catrinas” everywhere around the Day of the Dead. These are figurines of ladies in beautiful dresses but with skulls.