Día De Los Muertos Is Here And Sugar Skulls Are Everywhere. Here Is Their Spanish History In Mesoamerica
Day of the Dead without sugar skulls is like Halloween without candy, or Saint Patrick’s Day without 4 leaf clovers, they go hand in hand and no celebration of the dead would be complete without them. Day of the Dead is a celebration with many symbols and traditions, and ‘Calaveritas de azúcar’ are some of the most famous symbols of the celebration. However, do you really know what they mean? What they represent? And how they originated? Let’s find out.
Día de los Muertos is celebrated throughout Latin America, and traditions vary from region to region, but one symbol remains constant —the calaveritas.
Día de los Muertos is a joyful, colorful celebration in honor of death and those loved ones who have passed. There isn’t a single definition of Day of The Dead given that in every region of Mexico and other countries of Latin America, it’s celebrated differently. Certain symbols remain present in many of the cultures that celebrate it, and one of those is the now world-famous ‘calaverita’.
Skulls and skeletons are probably the most identifiable things about Día de los Muertos. These two symbols are indeed a big part of the holiday, and ‘calaveritas de azucar’ have become the everyday trinket you find in street stalls and ofrendas across Mexico during the whole month of October, leading up to Nov. 1 and 2 when the actual celebration takes place.
Sugar skulls have become a staple of Día de los Muertos, whether covered in glitter or decorated with colorful icing, they’re everywhere this time of year.
Sugar skulls are always present in Day of The Dead ofrendas, often made of white or pink sugar, and decorated with colorful designs, they usually have a person’s name written on a ribbon across their forehead. They are meant to symbolize a departed loved one, hence the name —as well as other many souls who have left this world and will be wandering around in the land of the living on the first two days of November. Sugar skulls can be given as gifts to both the living and the dead.
For ancient Aztecs and other Mesoamerican cultures, skulls had a very important meaning.
Skulls were an important symbol in Mesoamerican culture, way back in pre-hispanic time. Mesoamerican civilizations depicted bones and skulls in many ways, one of the most important ones was the ‘Tzompantli’, a wooden rack in which the skulls of war prisoners or human sacrifices were displayed.
These civilizations believed in life after death, and so these skulls were an offering to the god of the underworld, Mictlantecuhtli, who would assure safe passage into the land he ruled. The Tzompantli could also be an altar illustrating this journey from the terrestrial life into the spiritual one, and it’s not uncommon to find sugar skulls that are decorated and colored with Mictlantecuhtli’s face.
The ancient tradition changed after the arrival of the Spanish and the fall of Mesoamerican cultures.
With the arrival of Spanish conquistadores and the enforcement of the Catholic religion upon indigenous peoples, these traditions were deemed ‘heresy’ and were suppressed, or lost —and yet, part of them was kept alive in the shape of the skull, turned into a sweet confection that can be placed on altars as part of our offerings to the deceased during the Catholic celebration of All Saints Day.
Day of the Dead became a ‘mestizo’ celebration devoted to worshipping God and the afterlife —mixing the Spanish Catholic faith, with what was left of Mesoamerican culture and religion.
Día de los Muertos became a typically Latin American custom that combines indigenous Aztec ritual with Catholicism, brought to the region by Spanish conquistadores. Prior to Spanish colonization in the 16th century, the celebration took place at the beginning of summer. Día de los Muertos is celebrated on All Saints Day and All Souls Day, minor holidays in the Catholic calendar as enforced by the Spanish.
Sugar skulls originated after the Spanish introduced confectionary into Mexico.
While the tradition of honoring the dead already existed in Mexico, the Spaniards brought about new learnings and customs and, with that, the idea of molding decorations from sugar was widely popular and easily available. Mexico was rich in sugar at the time, and it was very accessible, even to indigenous or mestizo people with little money, so it was a natural choice. Once they learned that they could make these skull molds with just sugar and water, the idea of the sugar skull re-gained popularity and grew to be an important symbol of the day.
‘Calaveritas de azúcar’ are made of sugar, water and lemon —and other ingredients to add flavor or color.
The paste used to make them is called alfeñique, and it’s a mixture of sugar, hot water, and lemon, along with other ingredients that create a moldable mass akin to caramel. This paste allows for artisans to mold it into the shape of a skull to later decorate it for display.
There are many iterations of the classic sugar skulls, some are made of chocolate or ‘amaranto’ -another Mesoamerican treasure.
While the sweet skulls are found all over Mexico, some states prefer to make these confections with other ingredients, such as almonds, honey (and covered with peanuts) or amaranth —a staple in Mesoamerica for thousands of years. The reason they come in different sizes, besides decoration purposes, is because small skulls are usually meant to represent children, while the bigger skulls represent adults and elders.
Today, many different versions of the sugar skull exist. There are not only different sizes but also coffins and the skulls made out of chocolate, amaranth and almonds are delicious! But the meaning behind the calaverita remains the same, a commemoration of the person you are honoring whether dead or alive.