The Day of the Dead, or Día de Muertos, is a multi-day festival in which Mexican families honour and remember their dead, celebrating their lives, building colourful altars for them, and welcoming their spirits back to Earth for an all-too-brief but deeply cherished reunion with their loved ones. Preparations normally begin in October and culminate in two days of commemoration and celebration: November 1st, when the souls of deceased infants and children returned to the land of the living, and November 2nd, when they were joined by the adults. Early on in Shadow of the Tomb Raider, Lara Croft and Jonah Maiava take gamers on a stroll through the plazas and cemeteries of Cozumel, Mexico, where the Day of the Dead celebrations are in full swing.
Although this folk festival coincides with the All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days of the Catholic calendar, its origins can be traced back to the Aztecs and other pre-Hispanic cultures of the region. In fact, the Day of the Dead celebrations as we know them today are the result of centuries of cultural syncretism – combining indigenous traditions with Catholic beliefs – and are constantly evolving. The lively Mexico City Day of the Day parade seen in the 2015 James Bond film Spectre was a fictional spectacle created for the film’s opening sequence but when Mexican tourism officials saw how much interest it had generated amongst moviegoers, they decided to hold a real parade the following year, attracting over 100,000 spectators.
One could write a book – perhaps several – on the Day of the Dead and it would be impossible for me to condense centuries of Mexican history, race relations, and cultural practices into one relatively short article. So if you would like to learn more about the Day of the Dead, National Geographic’s article “Top 10 Things to Know About the Day of the Dead” and Google Arts & Culture’s Day of the Dead portal are great places to start. Alternatively, you can find a wealth of information about Day of the Dead customs and traditions in the “Sources and Further Reading” section below!
So, onto the subject at hand: Why are decorative sugar skulls (calaveritas de azúcar) such an integral and visible part of Mexico’s Day of the Dead celebrations? And why would Mexicans choose to use such a seemingly macabre symbol in this joyful celebration of love and family?
Well, first, we need to consider how Mesoamerican peoples viewed death. For the Aztecs, Maya, and other Pre-Columbian cultures, death was a natural and integral part of life, part of an endless cycle of regeneration and nothing to be feared. Back then, the dead were honoured in month-long ceremonies held during the ninth month of the Aztec calendar (roughly corresponding to August and early September in our own calendar) and presided over by Mictēcacihuātl, goddess of the underworld and death. Remnants of these ancient traditions survive in today’s Day of the Dead festivities. The use of skulls and skeletons, reminders of the ephemeral nature of life, can be traced back to Mesoamerican iconography and art. The rows of sugar skulls seen in shop windows and on family altars call to mind the skull racks (tzompantli) found in ancient settlements across the region. And Mictēcacihuātl herself arguably lives on in her modern-day counterpart, the stylishly-dressed skeleton lady known as La Catrina, whose skeletal visage is considered the personification of this popular festival.
For the Mexicans, skulls represent rebirth in the next life and offering a sugar skull to a living relative guarantees the recipient a spot in the underworld. Sugar skulls are among the offerings placed on graves and on the elaborate family altars commonly built for this special occasion. Other traditional offerings and decorations include: candles, water, “Day of the Dead bread” (pan de muertos), copal incense, colourful paper banners (papel picado), photographs of the deceased, and some of the deceased’s favourite foods, drinks, and cherished items. And let’s not forget the ubiquitous Aztec marigold, cempasúchil, whose vibrant orange petals and strong aroma were thought to guide the ancestors back to their families.
The layout, size, and degree of ornamentation of each family altar varies from region to region and depends largely on their socio-economic background but every effort is made to ensure that their visitors from the beyond are made to feel welcome, loved, and suitably catered for. After all, they’ve made the long, arduous journey up from the underworld to be with their living relatives for one night of the year. And what party would be complete without refreshments and tasty treats?
Now that we know why skulls feature so prominently in this beloved family festival, let’s take a closer look into how Day of the Dead sugar skulls are made and decorated.
The first step is to create a sugar syrup or paste using cane sugar, water, and some lemon juice. This sticky mixture is then poured into a large copper pot and heated close to the point of caramelisation. Each confectioner has their own secret recipe and may use slightly different measurements or ingredients (some add egg whites or flavourings) but they all have the same goal: to create a malleable sugar mixture that can be poured into special half-skull clay moulds and left to cool for up to several days. Once the half-skull shapes have cooled down, they are removed from the moulds and are glued together using sugar paste. All that’s left now is to decorate them using vegetable dyes, coloured icing, chocolate, sequins, coloured foil, or even beads and feathers. Due to the labour-intensive nature of the work and the public’s high demand for ornate sugar skulls, confectioners and bakers can spend months preparing their stock for Day of the Dead.
Sugar skulls are a type of alfeñique; this name is given to all types of decorative figures made from sugar paste and is a gastronomic tradition that was brought over to Mexico centuries ago by Christian missionaries from Spain and Italy, eventually replacing the Aztecs’ own tradition of crafting edible figures from amaranth dough and honey. If you’re planning a visit to Mexico City in late October or early November, do make the effort to visit the Feria del Alfeñique in the nearby city of Toluca, where you will find the world’s greatest collection of artisanal sugar skulls on display at this annual fair.
For the most part, sugar skulls aren’t meant to be consumed by the living; handmade sugar skulls are considered a folk art, one that is sadly being undermined by commercial mass production and the lack of skilled confectioners. Many of the skulls produced for the Day of the Dead are intended for purely decorative purposes and are meant to be enjoyed by the hungry spirits of the dearly departed. But that’s not to say that edible varieties don’t exist! On the contrary, celebrants can indulge their sweet tooth by munching on skulls made from chocolate, amaranth, caramel, or marzipan, which are normally less ornately decorated than their ritual counterparts but a lot more palatable.
On closer inspection, some of the decorative skulls dotted throughout the Cozumel level might not even be sugar skulls but, rather, one of the less-than-edible varieties made from wood, clay, or ceramic. In any case, no Day of the Dead festivities would be complete without mountains of sugar skulls. Because these aren’t just sweet treats to honour loved ones but symbols of Mexico’s heritage and history, of age-old cultural traditions blended together like the water and sugar they are made from.
Sources and Further Reading:
- Alfeñique (Wikipedia)
- Calavera (Wikipedia)
- Calaveritas de Azúcar, Tradición Mexicana que Resiste con las Generaciones (EFE)
- Day of the Dead (Google Arts & Culture)
- Day of the Dead (Wikipedia)
- Day of the Dead Altars (Copal Mexican Folk Art)
- Feria del Alfeñique (Gastro Obscura)
- Mexico – Indigenous Festivity Dedicated to the Dead (UNESCO)
- ¿Qué Significan las Calaveritas de Azúcar? by Luis Juárez (El Souvenir)
- The Meaning of the Altar (Smithsonian Latino Center/Google Arts & Culture)
- The Sweet Secrets of a Fifth-Generation Sugar Skull Maker by Ximena N. Larkin (Atlas Obscura)
- The Sweet Side of Mexico’s Day of the Dead (BBC News)
- Top 10 Things to Know About the Day of the Dead by Logan Ward (National Geographic)