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Sugar Skulls: History & Significance of Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead)

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Young Tattooed Couple Holding Hands
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Dia de los Muertos or the “Day of the Dead” is a Mexican religious holiday that has grown in popularity over the years amongst those who are not Mexican, Catholic, or even religious. One of its popular icons, the sugar skull, has become a favorite design used in everything from wall art to dinnerware. The tattoo community, in particular, has welcomed the sugar skull into its culture as an integral part of its own iconography. But in order to embrace something, you have to understand it and support its significance. So, what is the Day of the Dead and how does the sugar skull fit into the festivities?

Dia de los Muertos is celebrated around the same time as Halloween, so the two holidays are often meshed together. But the Day of the Dead is actually very different from Halloween and not at all morbid like the name may suggest.

The traditional celebration of Dia de los Muertos started over 3,500 ago by the Aztecs who practiced a month-long celebration that honored those who had died and welcomed their spirits back to earth for a visit. During this ritual, they would often display skulls that they had collected as symbols of life, death, and rebirth.

When the Spanish Conquistadors infiltrated what is now known as Mexico, they brought with them their Catholic faith and began an effort to convert the natives and put an end to the “sacrilegious and pagan” observance. Their attempts to squash the ritual were unsuccessful, but somehow over time the celebration was altered to coincide with the more “acceptable” Catholic holidays, All Saint’s Day and All Soul’s Day.

Today, Dia de los Muertos begins on the evening of October 31st. Legend says that the gates of heaven open at midnight, and that the souls of dead children – angelitos – are the first to visit their loved ones still on earth. They roam the earth for just one day, and then the following midnight, the gates are opened once again to allow the adult souls to descend.

The dead are welcomed by their families here on earth through the construction of elaborate altars known as ofrendas, or offerings. The altars consist of many items that are well-considered with the dead loved ones in mind. Flowers, particularly marigolds, are laid out for their bright color and strong scent, which is supposed to lead the dead to their altar. Other potent smells such as spices, incense, and scented candles are often also part of the ofrenda construction for the same reason. Pictures of the deceased, portions of their favorite foods and drink, toys for the angelitos, and other personal items are displayed on the altar table in honor of those who have passed. Even grooming items such as soap and shaving supplies are sometimes left, in the belief that the souls will be weary from their long journey and in need of freshening up.

One of the items almost always displayed somewhere among the items of the ofrenda is the sugar skull. What is the history and significance of this popular icon? (Cont'd on next page)

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