Today I’m a bit off topic again, but addressing another important issue. Tomorrow is officially the Day of the Dead, or the Día de los Muertos, a holiday celebrated primarily in Mexico but also in various Latin American countries, parts of the United States in Europe. I’m sure there are already hundreds of ‘sugar skull’ makeup tutorials appearing on the Internet or that you saw a couple of people with their faces painted in this style on Halloween (eye roll.) I get it, the make up is beautiful and there is so much scope for creativity, but what I want to say today is that it’s so much more than just a pretty make up or costume idea. It’s super important to recognise the tradition and cultural heritage behind the look.
Unless this is your first time on the Internet, you have probably already come across articles about cultural appropriation. I’m not nearly educated enough on the subject to write such an article, but here are some links to give you an introduction:
For now, I’m just going to say that it’s kind of shitty to ‘borrow’ an integral tradition from another culture (oftentimes a culture or race that has been marginalised, oppressed or outright enslaved), without understanding or caring to understand the magnitude of said tradition, and using it to get Instagram likes.
However, I’m not writing this to lecture anyone, I just wanted to compile a little list of things you might not know about the Day of the Dead. If you’re thinking of designing a sugar skull make-up look, I recommend you know a thing or two about the origins of the festival and take a moment to honor the tradition.
So, here goes: 7 things you might not know about the Day of the Dead!
1. It has been celebrated for at least 3,000 years: The Day of the Dead has been dated all the way back to the era of Aztec civilisation in Mexico, who dedicated an entire month to the ‘Goddess of Death,’ Mictecacihuatl, and the honouring of their deceased ancestors. The holiday which is commonly celebrated today is the combination of this ancient tradition with the Catholic festivals of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day.
2. It is actually two days: Although the Day of the Dead is officially calendared as the 2nd of November, this day is specifically dedicated to deceased adults. Children who have passed away are honoured on the 1st of November, also known as “El Día de los Inocentes, (the Day of the Innocents).”
3. Families and friends build altars to honour their loved ones: The most common practice to celebrate the Day of the Dead is to make an altar for the deceased. The altar is usually decorated with photographs, candles, sugar skulls, marigolds, images of saints and the favourite foods, drinks and belongings of the friend or relative who has died. Many people believe that the spirit returns to spend time with their loved ones and to enjoy the offerings of the altar.
4. Sugar skulls aren’t really edible: Although they are made of sugar, calaveras are not designed to be consumed. They are often decorated with beads, sequins and feathers, and are intended to be used as decoration or given as gifts. It is possible to get hold of edible sugar skulls, but eating a traditional one wouldn’t do you much good!
5. It is common to dress up as ‘Catrina’: Along with face painting, it is also common in Mexico for people to dress up as the skeletons designed by illustrator José Guadalupe Posada. His illustrations and etchings, designed to mock those who denied their indigenous heritage in favour of imitating European style, show skeletons dressed as wealthy, upper-class Europeans. The most famous character created by Posada is La Calavera Catrina.
6. As well as building altars, people hold graveside vigils: Another common tradition in Mexico and Latin America is to visit the graves of relatives on the night of the Day of the Dead/Day of the Innocents. Here, people pray and share stories remembering their loved one. Many people also clean and decorate the grave.
7. The Day of the Dead is a happy occasion: Of course, people feel sad at the loss of their friends and relatives and mourning is natural. However, the Day of the Dead is first and foremost a celebration of life, and a reminder of the belief that death is not the end, but rather the passing from one life to the next. There is comfort in the belief that loved ones can return, and the Day of the Dead is a celebration of this.