It is a tradition we hear more and more of as it is starting to become more prominent in all countries all over the world. Sugar skulls have become quite popular during Halloween, but what is their significance? With this tradition being celebrated now all over the world, some may not realise what it is they are actually celebrating or its meaning or significance. So let's explore what the Day of the dead all about.
In 2017, the movie Coco was released bringing the day of the dead festival into the hearts and minds of families all over the World. I know I cannot watch this movie without crying and it really explained the significance and culture behind the festival. While people now paint their faces to look like a sugar skull or buy a ticket to attend a day of the dead event, they may not understand the significance and cultural aspects behind it.
This tradition originates from Southern Mexico. It coincides with All Souls and All Saints Day which is a Catholic holiday also celebrated in countries such as Italy, South America, Spain and the Philippines. Over the years it has become more popular in Western countries and particularly in Australia where makeshift festivals have been popping up in recent years.
The All Souls and All Saints Day is celebrated on November 1st and 2nd. It is to honour those that have passed. A family would attend a special religious mass followed by a trip to the cemetery where family would clean up the gravesites of loved ones.
In Southern Mexico, using and elaborating on this tradition, the indigenous people also believe that on October 31st, the gates of heaven open at midnight. This allows all Children which have passed over to come down to Earth and spend 24 hours with their families. On the 2nd of November, the adults in the family who have passed come down from heaven and enjoy all the festivities which families have prepared for them. The Mexican tradition itself is over 3000 years old dating back to the Aztecs. It was originally thought that the festival itself was sacrilegious but it just never went away - if anything it just became more popular.
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Altars otherwise known as ofrendas are created and sit in the homes. They are decorated with candles, flowers, fruit, nuts, plates of turkey mole, tortillas and special Day of the dead breads. The alter needs to have a lot of food and drink to sufficiently feed the spirits who are said to be very tired from their journey from the otherworld. Toys are left for the children to enjoy and cigarettes for the adults. Some families spend over 2 months of their income just to fund celebrating this tradition. They do so as they believe it not only keeps the family close together but by pleasing the spirits, in return the happy spirits will provide them with protection, good luck and wisdom. They take a trip to the local cemetery usually in a procession at night time under candlelight with lots of music and of course tequila. They then clean up the gravesite of family members and sit by the grave with a picnic of food and spend time with their loved ones who are still living, while remembering and paying tribute to those who have passed.
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The sugar skull tradition dates back to the 18th century in Mexico. Sugar art itself was used by Italian missionaries in the 17th Century at Easter time where sugar lambs and angels were used to decorate side altars at the Catholic church. Mexico who had an abundance of sugar learnt this art of craft from friars and adapted them for their own religious celebrations. A sugar skull is basically a skull sculpted out of sugar which was to represent a departed soul. It coincided with the Dia de los Muertos as families would write the name of the departed spirit on the forehead of the skull and place it on their altar in honour of their impending return during the Day of the dead. They are then decorated with a lot of colour as the festival itself represents a celebration not a day of mourning.
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It is very far from people dressing in black, sitting with candles grieving. It is a celebration and a big party. There is a lot of food, there are a lot of families and there is a lot of smiling. The aim of the festival is not to be scared of death as they believe it is not the end. The death of ancestors was not to be a sad affair but a celebration of the life they lived and the time they spent with their families. Some cities have big parades with floats, processions leading to the cemetery, music, dancing and of course lots of food.
It is a beautiful concept and a wonderfully beautiful tradition. To participate in a true Day of the dead festival I imagine would be quite a moving experience. My husband's family is of South American descent and while I have not participated in this particular festival, I have embraced and participated in some of their other traditions. They involve very simple elements mainly consisting of food, family and music. Everything has a meaning and purpose so I can only imagine how powerful it would be to be a part of this celebration. The Day of the dead is a very spiritual thing and it is something to unite family members together. These elements are somewhat lost in the way a lot of people tend to celebrate them today. A lot of people particularly in countries where it was not traditionally celebrated probably don't really understand why they would paint their face like a sugar skull or what the significance of the festival really is. While we may not celebrate this day traditionally like other cultures, we can use it as an opportunity to unite with our family to remember and celebrate the life of those that have passed. It is something that seems to be blending in with Halloween quite naturally as they not only fall on the same day, but the theme of dressing up and a connection with the afterlife makes it a fit. It is important for us to remember and respect where this tradition comes from. So next time you pick up a sugar skull, see a dancing skeleton or look at painting your face with a Dia de los Muertos theme, take a minute to remember what it all means.
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