The famous "Calaveras" are symbols of the Day of the Dead. These Mexican skulls have been very popular for a long time and can be found everywhere: from clothes to tattoos, jewelry and even on dishes! Although these skulls are very popular, do you really think you know everything about them? 🤔
1) Origins of Calaveras
A. "El día de los muertos," a Mexican culture.
In Mexico 🇲🇽, the day of the feast of the dead, "El día de Los muertos", is a real cult practiced for more than 3000 years and celebrated throughout the country.
This day is not, as commonly thought, a Mexican version of Halloween, no. Although these events share certain traditions, such as costumes and parades, this particular day of the dead is more than just a holiday.
This event is very important for Mexicans, much more important than other holidays, it is the most celebrated custom in Mexico.
This day is fundamentally important for them because during the Day of the Dead, it was believed that the border between the spirit world and the real world was blurred. It is therefore the day on which the dead meet the living.
Thus, this day is not significant of sadness but rather of celebration and joy because in the beliefs of the Mexicans, the souls of their dead wake up and return to the world of the living to drink, dance and play music with their loved ones. In fact, it's a real little festive reunion as if their dead were returning from a long trip, pretty cool right? 🥳
"El día de Los muertos" can be closely related to Christian beliefs. For example, a Day of the Dead altar is dedicated to the passion of Christ. These altars are placed throughout the country in homes and institutions to commemorate the dead.
In the Mesoamerican world, there were five cardinal points: center, north, south, east and west, unlike those you are used to see. The main candle is located in the center and symbolizes fire. 🔥
The Skull Faction team discusses this in more detail in this article on the Origin of the Day of the Dead.
B. Long Journey of the Dead
The Aztecs were a tribe that lived from the 13th to the 16th century in and around the area that is now called Mexico. Religion and the many gods were very important in Aztec culture. Much of the daily life of the Aztecs was meant to honor and please the gods. 📿
The Aztec and other Nahua peoples living in what is now central Mexico had a cyclical view of the universe. They considered death to be an integral and ever-present part of life.
Upon dying, a person would have gone to Chicunamictlán, with the sole purpose of finding Mictecacihuatl (the goddess of death) in the land of the dead. Only after passing through nine very difficult levels, during a long journey of four years, the soul of the person could finally reach Mictlán, the last place of rest.
In rituals honoring the dead, traditionally held in August, family members will provide food, water and tools to help the skeletons of the deceased on this difficult journey. This inspired the contemporary Day of the Dead practice in which people leave food or other offerings on the graves of their loved ones, or place them on makeshift altars called Ofrendas in their homes. 🎁
To make light on the path of the dead souls, towards their home on Earth, people had an interesting ritual. In medieval Spain, they would cover the graves with flowers dotted with lit candles! Probably a nice sight to see.
C. A fusion of Traditions
November 1 in Mexico, which you can also find under the name "Nuestros Angelitos" (from Spanish our little angels 👼🏻) is the day of the "innocent saints" (children and virgins), and symbolizes the return of the spirits of deceased children. The next day, November 2, represents the arrival of the departed adults, who would be slower to travel the path between the two worlds.
Make no mistake, "El día de los muertos" does not simply represent the evolution of the cult of the dead practiced by the Aztecs. This very special day is the product of a fusion of traditions with Christian culture ⛪️ by settlers from Spain.
The Hispanic settlers conquered Latin America in the 16th century, and subsequently introduced Catholic elements into the celebrations in order to convert the indigenous people to the emerging religion in this part of Latin America, the Christian religion. This task was quite delicate since the local populations were very reluctant to these Christian beliefs! 🤨
So the monks had to rely on their beliefs and rituals already very present and anchored to make the connection with their own beliefs and rites. They also brought such traditions to the New World, with a darker view of death influenced by the devastation of the Bubonic Plague.
Thus, the reason why the Mexican Day of the Dead, which is a holiday in Mexico, was therefore gradually shifted from August to the first two days of November to be in line with the feast of All Saints, still of Christian origin 📅. It is a real ritual paying tribute to the dead in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica.
Now you know a little more about the Day of the Dead and its origins, and you understand what is the vision that Mexicans have about death. Let's go on to the next part!
2) La Catrina
In the early 19th century, printer and illustrator José Guadalupe Posada imagined Mictecacíhuatl, the Aztec goddess of the underworld, as a female skeleton known as La Calavera Catrina, which is now the most recognizable Day of the Dead icon.
This large female skeleton is topped with a fancy hat with feathers. You've probably seen her in different settings as the unique and striking makeup has become very trendy in recent years. The essence of its history has its roots in Mexican traditions and roots 🇲🇽 but has only been reworked in the last century.
It is believed that the Aztecs worshipped a goddess of death who they believed protected their departed loved ones, helping them in their next steps. The Mexican tradition of honoring and celebrating the dead is deeply rooted in the culture of its people.
Today, La Catrina is a popular tourist fascination and can be found as a statue in many local stores in Mexico, made of wood, clay or paper mache. These are eloquently painted feathers and real feathers added to hats. Many people buy these statues and bring them back as souvenirs from their time in Mexico 🇲🇽. Its identity is undeniable, La Catrina is 100% Mexican!
We're thinking of doing an article entirely dedicated to this curious goddess Catrina, what do you think? We'll let you know in the comments!
3) Calaveras: Emblem of the Day of the Dead
A. Day of the Dead festivities
During the contemporary Day of the Dead festivities, the deceased are reunited with their families in the cemetery where they rest ⚰️ (also known as pantheons) in order to restore cleanliness and perform burials.
The atmosphere is jovial and people commemorate the departed ones with joy. They sing and dance around their graves, adding the Mexican touch: throwing flower petals and lighting candles.
They usually wear brightly colored skull masks. Mexicans erect altars in their homes and treat the deceased as honored guests during their celebrations. Thus, they place many offerings at the feet of the altars: traditional Mexican favorite dishes 🍲 of the deceased, fruits 🍇 , flowers (often roses), candies, tequila, and the famous traditional Calaveras ☠️.
B. Sweet Skulls for All Saints' Day
There is probably no more iconic symbol of the Day of the Dead than the skull or Calaveras. This Mexican skull is usually a richly decorated representation of a skull, often featuring flowers 🌺, animals 🦊 and other decorations.
During the All Saints' Day vacation, this image is ubiquitous, from offerings to paper crafts to even cartoons in newspapers. In some ways, the Calavera has become an embodiment of the holiday itself.
Calaveras are sugar skulls made to celebrate the Day of the Dead 💀. You can often find them in every bakery with a special sweet bread called Pan de Muerto (literally bread of the dead).
The pan de ánimas rituals of the All Souls' Day in Spain are exemplified in this famous Pan de Muerto, which is the traditional dish for Day of the Dead celebrations today. Other foods and drinks associated with the vacation, but consumed year-round, include spicy dark chocolate 🍫and the corn-based liqueur called Atole.
4) Colorful Tradition
As you've probably noticed, Mexican skulls are colored in beautiful, bright, garish colors 🎨. Do you know why these endearing skulls are decorated with little frosty details instead of just being molded skulls? Is it just to make them look cute instead of terrifying? No, not exactly.
Mexicans see death from a much more optimistic point of view than we do and that is why death is not celebrated in a dark, morbid and austere atmosphere. It is essential for them that it is synonymous with joy and hope 🙏 because that is what connects the living to the dead in their culture.
Everything about "El día de Los muertos" is bright and colorful ✨ especially the decorations. If Mexicans are going to bring small sugar skulls to the altars, these little skull-shaped treats should be decorated with shiny icing and bright colored foil to simulate orange hair, red eyes and a big white smile.
Of course, Calaveras can be decorated in all sorts of colors, but when people paint their faces as if they were sugar skulls themselves, the colors they use take on special meaning.
- Red is used to represent our blood
- Orange to represent the sun or Aztec mourning
- Yellow to represent Mexican worry (which represents death itself)
- Purple is painful (although in other cultures it can also be wealth and royalty)
- Pink and white are hope, purity and celebration
- Black represents the land of the dead
- White refers to the sky
- Finally, purple represents mourning for Christians
5) Worry Flower
Calaveras are decorated with the Marigold Flower. These flowers have a real role and meaning in the Mexican culture.
Death is commemorated with the Marigold Flower in Mexico. The Marigold Flower has the virtue of being able to guide the deceased. Mexicans will re-write the ground with paths decorated with the petals of this sacred flower to lead the deceased to the altar set up in their honor.
Although it is a traditional flower, all other flowers 🌸 can be represented on the Mexican head. However, to make it stand out even more from the other flowers, the marigold flower is usually colored yellow or orange to make it stand out even more.
6) Mexican tattoos
Although it's very trendy, many of these Mexican skull tattoos are going to come with a rich history, and meanings that mean a lot more than you think! 🤨
Tattooing plays an important role in Aztec culture, even children are tattooed. The ancient Aztec tattoo designs were rather crude and were not only designed to decorate the body, but for various reasons.
Aztec tribal tattoos were done during rituals and always in honor of a specific god. The tattoo designs were used to identify the different tribes. Aztec tattoo designs were used to mark a person's status, to show a warrior's rank and achievements.
B. Meaning of the designs
There are several tattoo designs that we commonly see in regards to Aztec and Mexican tattoos. Many Aztec tattoo designs involve the sun 🌞 in one way or another.
Sun tattoos were in honor of Huitzilopochtili, the Aztec sun god. The sun was very important to the Aztec people, was the guardian of the sky. That is why today a tattoo of the Aztec sun symbolizes the belief in an afterlife.
Quetzalcoatl, the feathered snake god 🐍 of ancient Mexico, has also been adapted to Mexican tattooing. Quetzalcoatl, the god of time, creativity and fertility, was the most powerful of all the Aztec gods.
Mexican tattoos are unique inks and can have various meanings. So, if you want to commemorate a loved one, who had a great impact in your life, you can pay tribute to them with a Mexican skull tattoo. Do not hesitate to write the name of the person commemorated on the forehead of the skull. The rest of the tattoo should be richly colored. 🎨
In order to have a greater mark of respect and affection towards the person on the body with this inking, no words will be present above, below, or on it. The latter represents much more than death! It also represents the memory and spirituality that never left.
C. Significance of the Size of the Tattoos
The Mexican skull tattoo is not that kind of small tattoo that is just a detail on a wrist or ankle. The size of the tattoo varies but it is quite big compared to the ones we are used to see. It is well seen on the back, on the forearm, on the feet, sometimes even on the calves 🦶. If someone has several Calavera in tattoo, then it means that this person commemorates the age of the deceased.
If a person is wearing a small Mexican skull tattoo, it may be honoring the death of a very young person 👶🏼 or even a child. If the Mexican Calavera's inking is very large, it means that the wearer is commemorating the death of an adult. 👴🏻
The Mexican skull tattoo is often larger than the rest of the inks. It comes with many details, all of which are equally important. This kind of tattoo is going to require the use of a lot of colors and if you make it too small, the color is going to be too complicated to make itself visible. However, each of the colors has its own meaning and therefore an importance.
7) "Mexican Skull" Makeup
Mexican skull makeup is just as fashionable as the famous tattoos we talked about above, and has been for quite a few years! Halloween day 🎃 is every year and you never know how to dress up? 🧟♀️
Why don't you opt for a face painting? If you have good makeup skills, your creations can really be great as part of your Halloween costume. There are thousands of tutorials (on YouTube alone!) to get your Mexican Halloween makeup right today.
You don't have the time or patience to make a makeup mask as meticulous and elaborate as the Calaveras? No need to cover your entire face to make an impact. 🖌
Leave half of your "costume" natural and focus on applying beautiful details on just one side of your face. Also, if you want to make an impact, the simple act of applying rhinestones 💎 around the eyes improves the whole costume.
By now, Calaveras are no longer a secret to you! These famous Mexican skulls can also be made into pretty jewelry 💍 why not let yourself be tempted by accessories featuring the Mexican skull?