More than Sugar Skulls

Growing up the US Halloween has always my favorite holiday –dressing up in costumes, trick-or-treating, and getting scared beyond belief in haunted houses, corn mazes all made it my favorite day of the year. A few year ago, I went to San Miguel de Allende. This trip opened my eyes to Dia de los Muertos; a touching and heat filled event. Days away from this celebration inspired me to dig deeper into this holiday and its origins.

While this holiday may include beautiful colors and sights, it’s quite sacred and holds a great deal of meaning. Most Americans, Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is the “Mexican Halloween.” While this isn’t the case, the vast majority of American’s who “participate” in this holiday don’t know the actual origins and meanings of this two-day event. The spiritual ritual dates back 3,000 years, and it has outlasted more than 500 years of colonization.

During the old days, Dia de los Muertos was practiced during the ninth month of the Aztec solar calendar, and it went on for a full month. However, in an attempt to convert the natives to Catholicism, the Spanish colonizers moved the celebration to November 1 and 2 (All Saints Day), which is when the holiday is currently celebrated. While the rituals involved in the celebrations have retained some Catholic elements, the indigenous roots of the celebration are extremely prevalent.

While most people see death as an ending, the Mexican culture views death as a continuation of life. Instead of simply mourning loved ones, they celebrate the lives that they had. On November 1 — Dia de los Inocentes s the celebrations of babies and children that have passed. On November 2 is when the adults are celebrated.

During rituals, Mexican’s go to the gravesites of loved ones and eat a meal with them, often times a meal they enjoyed. Altars are built and include photos of the deceased and marigold flowers, which symbolize death. Offerings are like pan dulce (Mexican sweet bread) and water to give loved one’s nourishment and strength on their journey. They include beautiful flowers and designs to show that death shouldn’t be feared or shown in a morbid light.

Altars also hold candles, which are used to guide souls to our altars, along with burning incense, resin or herbs, the soles that visit the alters they do not eat or drink what is on the altar, instead they absorb the aroma and energy of the food, which nourishes the spirts.

Most Americans would call this “sugar skull makeup,” however it’s not. It’s called Catrina makeup. Catrina is a reference to a zinc etching from 1910 to 1913. As Latin Times writes: “She is offered as a satirical portrait of those Mexican natives who, [the artist] felt, were aspiring to adopt European aristocratic traditions in the pre-revolutionary era.”

The actual sugar skulls are made of candy, piped with icing for decoration.  During celebrations, these are eaten as a symbol of consuming death and the negative emotions that come with it — and not letting death or those emotions consume us.

This holiday means so much to the Mexican people. It brings healing and insight in the face of grief and keeps parts of the old ways alive. Dia de los Muertos and its rituals are proof and a testament to our resiliency and strength through centuries of colonialism and genocide.