Sugar skulls–Calaveras de Azucar in Spanish–are a mainstay of Dia de los Muertos festivities. It may seem curious Catholic country has a tradition that incorporates such dark, seemingly pagan elements. The truth is that Dia de los Muertos, much like Halloween, emerged as a fusion of indigenous traditions and Catholic holidays & ceremonies. The sugar skull is a perfect example.
Skulls had long been featured in Aztec rituals. In the pagan precursor to Day of the Dead—a month long ritual beginning in August and worshiping a god named Mictecacihuatl—human skulls were used as trophies of victory, and as a means of honoring the dead.
In the 17th century, decorative sugar art was imported to Mexico by Italian missionaries. Mexico was itself a major sugar producer and religious officials found it difficult to produce or import the expensive bronze or gold adornments that were popular in Europe. They soon learned to make their own sugary decorations for Churches & religious festivals. The first accounts detail sugar lambs & angels on the lesser altars of Mexican churches.
When Catholic Spanish authorities tried to Christianize the festival worship of Mictecacihuatl by moving it to coincide with All-Saints day & All-Souls day (Nov. 1st & 2nd respectively), the skull worship came along for the ride. And with their newfound prowess creating and decorating religious figurines, the Calavera de Azucar was born.
The skulls aren’t just pretty to look at—they have their own ceremony & meaning. A dead person’s name is on the forehead, and at the end of the festival a relative consumes it, symbolizing unity with the deceased.
And the Calaveras aren’t the only place that skulls are used in the celebration. Another ritual involves the use of Calacas, which are wooden masks in the shape of a skull. A family will get together, put on the masks and dance in memory of their friends & relatives.
You can see an example off some calacas here