Ofrendas and Sugar
Skulls for the Days of the Dead
The festivals of Mexico are world
renowned for their colorful decorations, energetic music, exuberant parades,
and cultural significance. Los Dias de los Muertos, the Days of the Dead
(November 1 and 2), are no exception. Often misunderstood by those who
live elsewhere, the festival honoring the dead is one of the most important
holidays celebrated during the year in Mexico. Many communities in the
United States have found that celebrating the Days of the Dead is a fun
and meaningful way to acknowledge the importance of Latin-American heritage.
In contemporary Mexico, it is considered better to joke about death than
to fear it. What to many Americans is tragic, unpleasant, and macabre,
to Mexicans is an honest appraisal of human mortality. Two beliefs are
central to this concept: the Christian tenet of eternal life after death
and the ancient observation of the cycles of nature. Thus, for many Mexicans
there is nothing to fear in death; they believe it is a natural cycle
of life and the passage to Heaven.
One of the most important aspects of the Days of the Dead for many families
is the creation of a memorial altar for the departed, known as an ofrenda.
They are tables that are erected in homes and decorated with items that
the deceased enjoyed in life. Fathers and their children work in the fields
cutting long poles of sugar cane or bamboo to make arches that are covered
with flowers and use them to decorate the ofrenda. To make sure the souls
of the deceased find their way home to celebrate, petals from the strong
smelling marigold flower are spread in a path leading from the street
into doorways. Photos of the dead are placed with respect on the ofrenda
and are surrounded with candles and flowers. Special foods, bottles of
soda pop, candies, clothing, and loaves of bread are common offerings.
Others include sugar candy skulls, papier-mache skeletons, and cut paper
banners called papel picado. In many communities, everyone contributes
to an altar that is created in the town church for the dead who have no
living relatives to honor them.
The omnipresent Day of the Dead image is the skull, or calavera. It decorates
everything, including many candies and pastries. The most common type
of skull is made from colored sugar called "alfenique" that
is pressed or poured into a mold. The three-dimensional "calaveras
de azucar" are decorated with brightly colored icing and sometimes
with colored foil. Although it may seem strange to outsiders, it is customary
for children to be given skulls with their names piped onto the foreheads
with icing. These labeled skulls do not "jinx" the person as
one might expect, but instead provide a laugh at death's expense.
Adapted from Days of the Dead: A Curriculum Resource, available from
Copyright 1999, CRIZMAC Art & Cultural Education