These skulls “represent death,” explains Juan Aguirre, director of Mano a Mano, a New York-based non-profit organization dedicated to celebrating Mexican culture and promoting the understanding of Mexican traditions. “Death doesn’t have to be bitter, it can be sweet.” Día de Muertos (the “los” is an Americanization and isn’t needed, Aguirre notes) is all about celebration, not sorrow.
On Día de Muertos, people leave sugar skulls, sometimes decorated with the names of loved ones who have died, on an altar as an ofrenda (offering). “It’s really an offering to the soul that they’re remembering,” Aguirre explains. People will also give sugar skulls to loved ones who are still living. “It might seem a little strange. Why would you give someone a sugar skull with their name on it, if usually, you put it on the altar to remember the dead?” Aguirre asks. “But it’s a way of showing appreciation for someone.”
Día de Muertos coincides with the Catholic holidays of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day on November 1 and 2, but that wasn’t always the case. The tradition pre-dates the Spanish invasion of Mexico, with its roots in indigenous Aztec ritual. “Prior to the Spanish invasion, people in Mexico used to make altars for the dead, and they used to put real skulls on them,” Aguirre explains. “But the Spaniards, when they saw those celebrations, didn’t like them. They thought it was gruesome to put bones on altars.”
The Spanish replaced the real skulls with skulls made from sugar paste, a technique that originated in the Middle East before coming to Spain, and then Mexico. Skulls and other sugar figures made with this technique are called alfeñiques. Sometimes, clay is used instead. Spanish invaders also changed the celebrations from a monthlong summer festival to a shorter festival that synchronized with Catholic holidays.
Today, centuries of tradition go into these decorations — which means the plastic versions you may see in stores (and as part of some Halloween costumes) may not be correct. “Sugar skulls have a very specific tradition, and what we find here in the U.S. is that sometimes they add symbols that are not part of Day of the Dead,” Aguirre says. “Sometimes Halloween symbols creep in.” For their Día de Muertos celebration in New York, Mano a Mano buys sugar skulls from artisans who grew up with these traditions. And if you’re buying sugar skulls, you’d do well to follow suit.