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It seems a bit morbid to display skulls in an altar, even if those skulls are small, made of sugar, and edible, as well as quite tasty! Why would the offerings in an altar include these sugar skulls?
The reason goes all the way back to prehistoric times, when the skull was a predominant figure in Mesoamerican societies and cultures in various aspects and depictions.
One of these depictions was the tzompantli, a wooden rack in which the skulls of war prisoners or human sacrifices were displayed.
These civilizations believed in a spiritual life after death, and so these skulls were an offering to the god of the underworld, Mictlantecuhtli, who would assure a safe passage into the land he ruled.
With the arrival of the Spanish conquerors and their religion, these traditions were lost, and yet a part of them was kept alive by maintaining the figure of the skull in a sweet confection that we can place in our altars as part of our offerings to the deceased.
This paste allows for artisans to mold it into the shape of a skull to later decorate it for display. While these sweet skulls are found all over Mexico, some states prefer to make these confections with other ingredients, such as almonds, honey and covered with peanuts , amaranth which is kind of like little balls of grain compressed into different shaped , and even gummies!
The reason they come in different sizes, besides decoration purposes, is because small skulls are usually meant to represent children, while the bigger skulls represent adults and elders.
Now, why are these somehow endearing skulls decorated with little icing details instead of just being the mold of the skull? Is it only so that they look cute instead of creepy?
No, not exactly. The reason a holiday revolving around death is so full of color instead of being gloomy and gray is because we celebrate the lives led by those who are now gone.
Of course, sugar skulls can be decorated in all kinds of colors, but when people paint their faces as if they were sugar skulls themselves, the colors they use hold a special meaning.
Traditional methods for producing calaveras have been in use since the s. The tradition of sugar skulls is for families to decorate their loved ones' ofrendas with both large and small handmade sugar skulls.
The larger sugar skulls represent the adults, whose celebration takes place on November 2. It is believed that the departed return home to enjoy the offering on the altar.
In pre-Columbian times the images of skulls and skeletons were shown often in paintings, pottery, etc. The most famous one was Catrina , wearing a feathery hat, fancy shoes and a long dress.
Catrina is considered to be the personification of The Day of the Dead. When used as offerings, the name of the deceased is written across the forehead of the skull on colored foil.
Traditional production methods have been in use since roughly the 15th century. The process involves using molds to cast the calaveras.
Production can be a lengthy process: a craftsman will usually spend roughly four to six months producing the skulls for a season.
Traditionally made sugar skulls are considered folk art and are not meant to be consumed. The production process is more focused on the aesthetic appeal of the skull than on the taste or food safety of the product.
Furthermore, many calaveras feature inedible decorations, such as beads, feathers, and foil. Some skulls were formerly decorated with sombreros , although these designs have mostly disappeared since the s.
The calaveras are traditionally sold at outdoor market stalls beginning two weeks before the Day of the Dead.
Other calaveras are produced to be edible. Most are cast as one piece from cane sugar, which can either be left unflavored or else flavored with vanilla.
The calaveras are typically colored with vegetable dyes. As with the more decorative calaveras, these will sometimes have names written on the foreheads, as well.
Calaveras may be eaten, or kept for a few days and then thrown away. Clay toy variations of calaveras also resemble the shape of human skulls.
These toys are often painted a metallic silver color, but they may also be found in colors such as white, black, and red. Beaded eyes of many colors may also be added for decoration.
Poetry written for the Day of the Dead are known as literary calaveras , and are intended to humorously criticize the living while reminding them of their mortality.
Living personalities were depicted as skeletons exhibiting recognizable traits, making them easily identifiable. Additionally, drawings of dead personalities often contained text elements providing details of the deaths of various individuals.
Sometimes known as "sugar skull" make-up, or Catrina make-up, facepainting a skull with ornate elements is a popular element of Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico.
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