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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 CRIZMAC.

Copyright 1999, CRIZMAC Art & Cultural Education Materials, Inc.