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Halloween costumes may go away right after October 31, but the celebration of the macabre and spirits do not get buried so quickly. El Día de los Muertos (The Day of the Dead) is celebrated in central and southern Mexico during the early days of November. The day coincides with the Catholic All Souls Day and All Saint’s Day and incorporates many different traditions.
One of the more recognizable traditions is the creation of “calaveritas de azucar,” or “sugar skulls.” These are decorative or edible skulls made from either clay or sugar, which are used in celebrations. The origin of these molded skulls can be traced back to the Spanish conquest of Mexico. Although the dead were already honored in Mexico, the Spanish brought their own customs, including molded decorations. Because sugar was readily accessible in Mexico and quite affordable, using it to make molds was a natural choice.
Sugar skulls are placed on an “ofrenda,” or “decorated altar,” that features candles, buckets of flowers, feathers, fruits, and much more. The name of someone who has passed away and is to be honored is written across the forehead of the sugar skull. Adherents of this tradition believe that the gates of heaven are opened at midnight on October 31 and the spirits of deceased children can reunite and celebrate with their families for 24 hours. On November 2, adult spirits join the festivities.
In many indigenous or rural areas, the Day of the Dead can be quite expensive, with many families spending several month’s income to honor dead relatives. After food and gifts are shared, the celebration is taken to the cemetery, where tombs are cleaned and loved ones are remembered and spoken of. Music and games also may ensue.
The size and colors of sugar skulls vary. Small skulls represent those who passed at a young age, while larger ones are for adults. Sugar skulls are vibrantly colored to reflect life, which the Day of the Dead celebrates. Skulls may have glitter and be decorated with hats and bows.
Some sugar skulls are made entirely of edible ingredients, and very few are solely used as decoration rather than something to eat.