Why Sugar Skulls?
Before Christianity, every culture in the world had some kind of celebration to remember their ancestors, usually combined with harvest and the change of seasons. The Celts and the Aztecs included. By the way neither the Celts nor the Aztecs or any other Meso-American culture knew or used sugar, and their offerings were made from their harvest, including flowers.
It was until the XI century that is the year 600 of our era, that the abad of Cluny initiated “All Saints Day” as a way to honor all the Christian martyrs that had died in the beginning of Christianity. It became officially a part of the Church calendar in the XIII century.
In the Christian kingdoms of León, Aragón y Castilla people made confections to look like the martyrs, bones, fingers, and skulls. In Italy, they looked like fingers and were called “Ossi dei Morti“. People would have these confections blessed in church and then placed on the “Saints’ Table” at home, where they shared them with family and friends. Recipe
In Mexico, “The Day of the Dead” might sound harsh and scary, but it is the opposite. The word “Dead” means ancestors, grandparents, children that we loved and are no longer with us. It is a loving expression of love for them, our ancestors. People go to the trouble of setting up the “Ancestors’ Table” with flowers, foods that remind them of their loved ones who are already gone, because, it makes them feel connected with them as if they could enjoy all of that too. The sugar skulls are given as a “greeting card” to friends and family, as a way of telling them we thought of them. Here is the recipe for the sugar skulls and here is a great mold I found that you might like!
In the same manner The “Pan de Muerto” [Bread of the Dead” is placed at the table to remind us to give thanks before we eat. Recipe
I just want to say that it is very sad, and distressing the way the entertainment industry sometimes portrays this celebration. This celebration is not about loving death, this celebration highlights the importance of family in the Mexican culture, Mexican people do not love death, they love their dear love ones who are dead. There is a difference.
La Catrina, which is a well-known icon of the “Day of the Dead”, actually became part of the holiday purely by accident. It has no roots in the pre-Hispanic world at all. Catrina is slang for a rich, petulant woman, and dresses in the European style of the Porfirio Diaz era.
It was during this polarizing reign of dictator Porfirio Díaz that The Catrina was born. In 1913, Mexican artist and illustrator José Guadalupe Posada created the very first version of La Catrina. He was a relief lithographer and printer, who used to write satiric caricatures making fun of politicians and people of the farándula [show biz]
His satirical illustrations and cartoons featured in the magazine, El Jicote played a crucial role for the government during the presidency of Francisco I Madero and during the campaign of Emiliano Zapata. Posada was the creator, but in 1947, Diego Rivera included La Catrina as part of his mural ” Sueño de una Tarde Dominical en la Alameda Central, which is displayed in the Diego Rivera museum.
Here are some questions about Dia de los Muertos and Sugar Skulls I am often asked:
Q: Are sugar skulls related to Aztec rituals?
A: No, they are not. This blog post clarifies the timing, historically, of how the tradition of gifting sugar skulls came about. See above for more info.
Q: Are sugar skulls supposed to look creepy?
A: No, they are meant to be celebratory gifts of remembrance. That is why, the tradition includes brightly colored flowers and design. The names on the Sugar Skulls refer to either someone we love or someone we are remembering.
Q: Is Dia de los Muertos celebrated in Spain?
A: Not exactly. Dia de los Muertos is a very specific Mexican celebration. However, many Catholic countries like Spain and Italy, do have their own “All Souls Day” celebrations and traditions. See above for more details.