Día de los Muertos
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Día de los Muertos




Day of the Dead (Día de los Muertos) is a spooky holiday celebrated in central and southern Mexico during the chilly days of November 1 & 2. Even though this coincides with the Catholic holiday called All Soul's & All Saint’s Day and is close to the pagan festival of Halloween, the indigenous people have combined this with their own ancient beliefs from the Aztec tradition of honouring their deceased loved ones.

They believe that the gates of heaven are opened at midnight on October 31, and the spirits of all deceased children (angelitos) are allowed to reunite with their families for 24 hours. On November 2, the spirits of the adults come down to enjoy the festivities that are prepared for them.

In most native villages, beautiful altars (ofrendas) are made in each home. They are decorated with candles, buckets of flowers (wild marigolds called cempasuchil & bright red cock's combs) mounds of fruit, peanuts, plates of turkey mole, stacks of tortillas and big Day-of-the-Dead breads called pan de muerto. The altar needs to have lots of food, bottles of soda, hot cocoa and water for the weary spirits. Toys and candies are left for the angelitos, and on Nov. 2, cigarettes and shots of mezcal are offered to the adult spirits. Little folk art skeletons and sugar skulls, purchased at open-air markets, provide the final touches.

Day of the Dead is a very expensive holiday for these self-sufficient, rural based, indigenous families. Many spend over two month's income to honor their dead relatives. They believe that happy spirits will provide protection, good luck and wisdom to their families. Ofrenda building keeps the family close. On the afternoon of Nov. 2, the festivities are taken to the cemetery. People clean tombs, play cards, listen to the village band and reminisce about their loved ones. Tradition keeps the village close.



Sugar art is used to create large ornamental skulls. It was brought to the New World by Italian missionaries in the 17th century. The first Church mention of sugar art was from Palermo at Easter time when little sugar lambs and angels were made to adorn the side altars in the Catholic Church.

Mexico, abundant in sugar production and too poor to buy fancy imported European church decorations, learned quickly from the friars how to make sugar art for their religious festivals. Clay moulded sugar figures of angels, sheep and sugar skulls go back to the Colonial Period 18th century. Sugar skulls represented a departed soul, had the name written on the forehead and was placed on the home ofrenda or gravestone to honour the return of a particular spirit. Sugar skull art reflects the folk art style of big happy smiles, colourful icing and sparkly tin and glittery adornments. Sugar skulls are labour intensive and made in very small batches in the homes of sugar skull makers. These wonderful artisans are disappearing as fabricated and imported candy skulls take their place.

There is nothing as beautiful as a big, fancy, unusual sugar skull!

Ollie Thomson (T)