Vixxie really loves Day of the Dead

You know what my favourite candy for ‘trick or treating’ is? Let me show you !

SUGAR SKULLS !!!!

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Sure there are healthier options but I’m not part of the party-pooper police squad. And there are cheaper options in de local Aldi/Tesco. Also true (especially because the pens with edible colour icing don’t come cheap here). 
But making and decorating this candy has a fun factor that easily outweighs any other argument. These ‘Calaveras de azúcar‘ are traditionally made from meringue and sugar, but what stops you from filling up that silicone skull mould with just about anything else edible? I’ve made them from hashed up brownies once. Tasty, but messy. Last year I made them from marzipan paste, which made them about ten times more delicious than meringue (I’m not a fan) and very easy to decorate and preserve as well. This year I knew there would be no kids at my door because of the covid situation. After messing around with home-made fruit-filled pralines earlier this year and having all my colleagues ask me repeatedly when I’m cooking up the next batch) I tried with white and dark chocolate and both turned out to be great options. Obviously those are not the kind of candy you’d want to fill kid’s buckets with because they will melt and turn the kid into a liquified bonbon by the time it gets home but they make great treats when straight out of the fridge though. My belly testifies

I am completely fascinated with those flower-decorated skull patterns. The same ones you find in the stunning face make-up during Day of the Dead. If you haven’t seen this yet, you have probably been living under a rock for the past couple of years. The elegantly decorated skeleton faces have made it into every Halloween party. But… do the people who have painted their faces also know what they stand for? It is not just another face-paint tradition. It has deep political roots in the rich Mexican history.

Remembering and honouring the dead is by no means a strange custom to us Europeans or any one else for that matter. We have been celebrating All Saints and Souls day on November 1st and 2nd one way or another. And so do Mexicans, our Latino friends and people all over the world. But I am fascinated with everything about Día de la Muertos. From the uplifting Mexican positive attitude towards death to the festivities in honour of their deceased. So much, at times, I wish I was part of the Mexican culture! 

Unlike our mourning, pouting and turning every years memorial into another tear-jerker, Day of the Dead is a celebration of life instead. Imagine the looks you’d get if you were smiling and laughing while standing at your dead grandma’s tombstone. The looks you’d be getting, worse than being shushed to silence in the library for the fourth time. In Mexico however, on November 1st and 2nd, cemeteries turn into colourful venues full of Marigold and other flowers, filled with happiness. To sit in a cemetery all night with a mariachi band and a picnic basket at the graveside sure is a different way to look at what it means to be alive. And when you think about it, I don’t think they are wrong. Death is just a natural cycle of life and their celebrations helps the living feast with the loved ones who have died in an explosion of colour and life-affirming joy. 

So what’s with all the embellished skulls then? 

They are called Catrinas and they are an artistic symbol that represents “La Calavera Catrina”, “The elegant skull”, a piece of art conceived by Mexican engraver José Guadalupe Posada

The original Catrina was titled La Calavera Garbancera:  an artistic etching in zinc, composed to serve as a political satire around 1910 and intended to impeach the social class of Mexicans having European-aristocratic aspirations. That typical large grandiose hat with feathers was a style which passed through a period of high fashion in Europe during that age. But the satire depicted also the sad truth that at the start of the Mexican Revolution, the Francophile tastes of authoritarian leader Porfirio Díaz and the aristocratic class resulted in hunger and starvation for 90 percent of the Mexican populace. The skeleton is the representation of death due to this dictatorship. 

The Catrinas had to wait nearly four decades following the satire to becoming ingrained in popular culture. It was in the late 1940s that a mural by Diego Rivera, depicting 400 years of Mexico’s key characters (including Posada), gave the satirical Calavera Catrina exposure and notoriety. 

Las Catrinas have since developed a wide cultural following across Mexico, and the figurines have become an established form of art there. In the days and nights surrounding Día de los Muertos, festivals took place where Mexican families would paint their faces in the style of La Catrina, and altars were made full of ofrendas (offerings) and calaveras de azúcar, the little sugar skulls that I love making. These days, those elaborately decorated skulls with hats are recreated in the whole world using just about every possible material including ceramic, wood, papier-mâché, clay, resin, compressed sugar (or any other edible ingredient), …. In the past decade, the fashionable skulls have also become abundantly present during Halloween, where participants in processions and parties paint their faces to emulate the Catrina. 

The symbol of the Catrina in the rest of the world has become nothing more than a secular ornament, disconnected from spirituality and history, and that is a shame. The Mexican acknowledgement of life’s continuity has roots which go back to some of the oldest civilizations including the Maya. 

So if you consider a Catrina make-over for Halloween, at least respect the fact that there shouldn’t be any bloody or scary aspect to your make-up. It’s not respectful. Nothing says ‘love’ better than grieving your dead grandpa dressed up in a bloody, scary costume. Also, certain elements hold extra significance to your Catrina decoration.

Colors

The primary colours for La Catrina are red, white, and black. 

Red symbolizes the love for departed family members and friends, while black and white evoke mortality and ghosts” but if you choose to experiment with different colours, it’s not unusual to do so.

Flowers

Bright-coloured flowers are often incorporated into the face-painted skull designs. An iconic Mexican flower specifically: Cempaxochitl. We call it Marigold, that’s just a tad easier. 

Where does it come from? Oh, I’m so happy you asked! Cempaxochitl is the flower’s given name in Náuhuatl (an ancient Mexican language) and translates to “twenty flowers”. You can find this flower (member of the sunflower family) with its bright orange-yellow petals on every Day of the Dead ofrenda. In Aztec belief, the marigold was sacred to Mictlantecuhtli, the god of the dead. When the souls of departed family and friends return to earth, it is believed the strong scent of marigold helps to guide the spirits to their altars. The flowers are also used to decorate graves, archways, and crucifixes, and women sometimes wear the flower-heads in their hair as part of the traditional Catrina costume. The flower petals are edible and can also be used to add colour and layers of flavour to fresh salads or made into yellow food colouring and dyes. 

Butterflies

In Mexico, monarch butterflies appear in November, and many believe they carry the souls of ancestors.

I would LOVE to visit Mexico during the Day of the Dead. 

In Aguascalientes, the birthplace of Posada, they celebrates Day of The Dead with an annual national fair, where an enormous statue of a Catrina is put on display. Anywhere else as well festivals that features music, costumes, dance, and artwork related to celebrating the culture and history of La Calavera Catrina are hosted. In Mexico City, for example, a large and elaborate procession downtown takes place with participants that have their face painted to imitate the Catrina. The cemeteries are dressed with colour and decorations, the local park or plaza turn into massive altars of remembrance. 

Local Mexican families plan their Day of the Dead for weeks, or perhaps even months in advance. The focal point of the festivities are ofrendas; altars with offerings to the deceased. A pack of cigs for your chain-smoking uncle who died of lung cancer or a bottle of tequila for auntie with the liver cirrhosis? It’s a bit unorthodox for us, that’s for sure. But those colourful altars are not for worshiping purposes but instead for cheerful celebration of a life well lived. It’s a tribute to loved ones and the continuity of life. Personal ornaments, lit candles, sugar calaveras and Marigold flowers are also usually represented on those altars. Just as Pan de Muerto and hot chocolate. Count me in! This ‘Bread of the dead’ is a semi-sweet sugar-dusted bread made from eggs and is infused with natural citrus fruit flavours. A brioche with a touch of fruit, as we know it. Deliiiiiiiiiiiicious. It’s traditionally taken with hot chocolate that has been whisked with cinnamon, perfect for chilly November evenings. 

It is said that making an ofrenda also helps a great deal to process loss and grief. Perhaps I’ll make an ofrenda for my grandparents this year, with all respect for the Mexican positive attitude towards their ancestors. Yeah… why not? 🙂

Disclaimer: All images are property of their respective owners. I found them on stock databases and on Pinterest.

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