The other day a friend asked me, “What are all these pretty little skulls I keep seeing on Pinterest?” This got me curious, so I investigated. Here is what I found.
The images of decorated skulls are called Calavera or Sugar Skulls, and pertain to the Mexican celebration of the Day of the Dead, which coincides with the Roman Catholic All Souls and All Saints Day on the 1st and 2nd of November. This, incidentally, is also Halloween, as well as the Pagan cross quarter Sabbath of Samhain; all festivals echoing the melancholy tone of the approaching Northern hemisphere winter, and the “death” of summer.
In Mexico Día de Muertos is a public holiday and a family celebration. (Prior to Spanish colonization, an Aztec festival for the dead was held at the beginning of summer, which probably explains its more joyful character. The Catholic Church subsequently combined it with the early winter event of Hallow tide). On this day, people remember and pray for the souls of loved ones that have passed away. Groups of relatives and friends visit the graves of the deceased bearing favourite foods and beverages as gifts, and stay to have picnics there. In homes, altars commemorating the dead are also set up, and decorated with food, flowers (especially marigolds) and the omnipresent Calavera. Children are especially fond of the skulls which are made from sugar, and sold at outdoor markets two weeks before the celebration. Those meant to be placed on altars and graves, can be made from clay and have the name of the deceased painted on the forehead. They are decorated with paint, beads or feathers. Others are cast from cane sugar, or chocolate, and decorated using edible vegetable dyes.
The belief is that honouring the dead makes the spirits happy, and in turn they will provide protection, good luck and wisdom to their families.
In Europe and America costumes are worn on Halloween; people in Mexico wear traditional skull masks, and the practice of painting the face to resemble a skull has developed as a variation.
In Aztec culture, the skull did not have a morbid connotation as it also signified rebirth. This has passed over into the Mexican philosophy of life. Sugar skull tattoos can be used as a way to fondly remember loved ones, but there are certain stipulations: If the skull represents a specific person, their name must appear on the forehead portion of the tattoo. The rest of the skull must be completely decorated and there should not be writing anywhere else except on the forehead. A minimum of four colours are used, making the design a bright and cheerful celebration of the life that once was. Even beloved pets can be remembered in this way.
It is perhaps because of the unique way Mexican culture views death as an integral part of life that celebrating the Day of the Dead is finding its way to other nations as well. A quick search on Pinterest will reveal any number of skull based art and crafts for those who want to participate.