Have you noticed that sugar skulls are everywhere this season? Calaveras de azucar (sugar skulls) are part of the Mexican observance of the Day of the Dead, a three-day celebration.In fact, the entire Catholic world celebrates these holidays, including Italy, although I saw no sign of it when I was in Sicily earlier this month. Perhaps Italian retailers don’t feel the need to promote holidays months in advance as we do.
But back to this colorful holiday, Dia de los Muertos.
Here’s what happens: On what we know as Halloween, Oct. 31, Mexican children make an altar, inviting the spirits of dead children to come back and visit. That’s because it’s believed that the gates of heaven open at midnight, and children are allowed to return from the dead to visit their families for 24 hours.
The next day is All Saints Day, when adult spirits can come on down. Finally, Nov. 2 is All Souls Day, when Mexican families make cemetery visits to decorate family graves. Traditional decorations include flowers,fruits, nuts, folk art such as cardboard skeletons and–sugar skull confections.
We see the skulls in calendars and cards and artwork, but in countries that celebrate these holidays, the sugary skull-shaped confections are sold everywhere on the days and weeks leading up to Day of the Dead. Sometimes, they’re made at home and given as gifts, with the name of the recipient frosted on them. Oh, and the recipients can be living or the sweet skulls can be a way to memorialize the dead. And they’re not scary at all–they’re meant to be happy visages.
As a culture, we Americans have difficulty with death, but I think these traditional holidays are a wonderful way to not only remember those who have passed on to their next adventure, but a way to keep them in our lives. Even if you’re not Catholic, it might be fun to make your own family ritual honoring the dead and use sugar skulls.