On November 1st and 2nd the Mexican holiday of Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is in full swing. It is a time to honor the dead. The first day is celebrated by building alters in which children’s spirit can return and visit the living. The second is to honor the adult’s spirits. This holiday is similar to the Celtic holiday of Halloween in that they believe the dead come back to earth. However, it is very different in that this holiday was borrowed from the Aztecs in their belief that they’d rather celebrate their loved ones lives and honor them instead of mourning those who have passed. Centuries ago Dia de los Muertos was celebrated in the spring but today this Mexican celebration of life aligns with the “more acceptable” Catholic holidays of All Saint’s Day and All Soul’s Day.
Families go to great lengths to build altars to honor loved ones. The offering of sugar skulls, tamales, favorite foods, and alcohol are place on the alters to encourage the loved ones to visit. Sugar skulls, very elaborately decorated skulls, are made from pure sugar, represent diversity of life, and reflect the individual’s personality. The name of the loved one is usually written on the sugar skull itself. You can even show your love and honor for the living with sugar skulls by giving one to those you care about.
Sugar art dates back to the 17th century when Italian missionaries visited the New World. Mexicans during that time period had very little money and learned from the Catholic friars how to make decorations out of an ingredient they had plenty of -- sugar. Molds were made of clay and the sugar decorations were used to adorn the church and gravestones and were a part of the ofrendas -- the collection of objects placed on an altar for the holiday.
Within Western culture skulls usually depict the dark, macabre and gruesome death. However, the symbolism of a sugar skull is rooted in the decoration around the eyes. Flowers are meant to symbolize life, while cob webs symbolize death. Burning candles set inside the eyes are a sign of remembrance. These items can also be used in combination to personalize the skull as well.
Today’s popularity with sugar skulls most likely lies in their unique designs and colors. Although the fascination is purely for artistic (rather than religious) reasons and the skulls have developed their own identity separate from the Catholic/Mexican culture from which they came, it's still important to recognize and respect the history of these beautiful, cultural artifacts. In modern cultures there really isn't a defined set of rules for designing sugar skulls. The shape of the skull itself can be the more traditional squared chin shape or the more exaggerated Oaxacan style with the high, protruding cheekbones. The skull can be decorated with pretty much anything you want: flowers, swirls, stitches, geometric shapes, stars, dots, lines, etc.
Bottom line – enjoy the artistic beauty of sugar skulls on your favorite t-shirt, tattoo, or one of our many custom carved wood items, i.e. cutting boards, coasters, beer openers, serving trays, etc. but remember it’s significance -- to honor the deceased.