History Stories

The candies you’ll find distributed throughout Mexico on November 1 and 2 sound innocent enough. Made of pure sugar, they’re decorated with bright reds, blues, greens and yellows sure to entice wide-eyed children. Look closely, however, and you’ll see that these sweet confections have a darker side: They’re molded in the shape of human skulls.

Such contradiction is fitting, since the candies are traditionally made for a holiday that embodies a similar paradox. The Day of the Dead—actually a multi-day celebration—is a time to both quietly contemplate the lives of the departed and to, well, party.

Día de los Muertos is rooted in the centuries-old traditions of the cultures that dominated present-day Mexico in pre-Columbian times, including the Aztecs, Mayans and Toltecs. The Aztecs, for instance, held a month-long celebration of deceased loved ones each year, presided over by the goddess Mictecacihuatl, or “Lady of the Dead.”

With the arrival of the Spanish and the spread of Roman Catholicism, these traditions merged with the similarly themed Christian holidays All Saints’ Day (November 1) and All Souls’ Day (November 2). In Mexico and among Mexican-Americans, though, November 1 is usually reserved for honoring the memories of children who died (“angelitos”), while November 2 is for remembering those who were adults at death.

In his 2006 book “Skulls to the Living, Bread to the Dead: The Day of the Dead in Mexico and Beyond,” expert Stanley Brandes writes that “the origin of [Day of the Dead] folk practices is a source of scholarly and popular debate.” What we do know, however is that food plays a major role in Día de los Muertos celebrations—as it almost certainly always has.

When families build altars (“ofrendas”) to the dead in their homes, they include offerings to represent earth, water, fire and wind. The favorite foods of the departed represent earth. Water, traditionally placed in a clay pitcher or glass, is also at the ready, reflecting the belief that a returning spirit works up a thirst. (The inedibles included in the ofrendas are candles and decoratively punched paper, representing fire and wind, respectively.)

The deceased’s favorite foods and drinks also become part of the picnic if a family chooses to celebrate graveside. The hope is that the spirit of the beloved one can be coaxed back for a short reunion, and a little temptation—in the form of, say, tequila and tacos—can’t hurt.

Both home- and cemetery-based remembrances are not complete without egg-based pan de muerto, or Day of the Dead bread. Almost always sweet and sometimes made with anise, the bread is baked in dozens of shapes representing humans and animals. Some loaves are round and decorated with extra pieces of dough that resemble skulls and bones.

Other foods linked to the holiday—although consumed throughout the rest of the year as well—include atole (a corn-based liquor), chocolate and complexly spiced mole sauce.

As Day of the Dead candy skulls suggest, skeletons are an important symbol of the holiday—as they are for nearby Halloween, which has its roots in the Celtic festival known as Samhain. In the case of Día de los Muertos, the role of the skeleton has both ancient and more recent roots. In pre-Columbian times, depictions of skulls and skeletons appeared regularly in media ranging from wall paintings to pottery. They were intended to represent rebirth into the next stage of life.

Then, in the early 20th century, Mexican political caricaturist Jose Guadalupe Posada earned fame by creatively depicting the wealthy as somewhat foppish skeletons (“calaveras”) in fancy attire. One of them, nicknamed Katarina and wearing a feathery hat and long dress, took on a life of her own as a personification of the Day of the Dead, which she remains today.

Day of the Dead skeletons are made in inedible toy forms—from durable materials like wood and papier-mâché—as well as in sugar-paste varieties. The skulls can be molded with hardened sugar syrup, chocolate or amaranth seeds. The amaranth varieties sometimes include walnuts in the eye sockets and peanuts for teeth.

Despite the often-comical aspect of the ubiquitous skulls and skeletons, Day of the Dead celebrations don’t laugh at death or take it lightly. Instead, they serve to acknowledge that death is an inevitable part of life. And what better way to accept this reality than with the sweet comforts that traditional and favorite foods can bring?

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