Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) - Writing Inspiration

In Aztec and Meso-American cultures, skulls were used to honor to the dead. They symbolized death and rebirth. Five hundred years ago, the Spanish Conquistadors discovered people in Mexico celebrating death, something their Christian background considered sacrilegious. What they did not understand is that the ritual was to honor your ancestors and remember your relatives. In an attempt to Christianize a culture the Spanish church could not stamp out, they moved Dia de los Muertos to All Saints Day on November 1st. Before this, the Aztecs celebrated Day of the Dead celebrations the entire month of August, the ninth month.

Skulls like the one in my home, featured to the left, are often found on the altars, dedicated and decorated for relatives that have passed on into the next world. People also wear skull masks and other masks celebrating the dead in parades. The skull masks are called calavas. These are a few of the Day of the Dead masks my husband and I own. Reproduction masks are quite cheap, but masks actually used in ceremonies can be quite pricey depending on how old they are and how rare. They are not even supposed to be sold, but a lot of the people travel to Mexico and other poorer countries to buy them illegally after the festival. They are supposed to be destroyed after the festivals, but they end up in the tourist shops in New Mexico and other places. Usually, from what I have heard, people often sell them for a case of beer or less as the night wears on.

Reproduction from Guatemala


Circa 1970s. From State of Durango. Possibly used in
lizard fertility dance. Devils are considered clowns
or pranksters who give comic relief.
 On Dia de los Muertos, it is custom for families to visit the graves of their loved ones and leave them offerings (ofrendas) of food and drink and flowers. Marigolds are a traditional flower left at graves and altars. Sugar skulls, calavera azucar, are also a popular item as are toys and trinkets made to celebrate death.

La Katrina is the Mexican female character of death, often portrayed in Victorian dress with flowers on her hat. She is synomymous with the marigolds, a strong smelling flower. It draws the dead to the graves to visit with their families. In San Miguel, Mexico, on the eve of the Day of the Dead, ladies dress in Victorian costumes and paint their faces with skulls, parading through the streets to hand out treats to children before attending charity balls.

La Katrina is often seen in Mexican art with El Baron de Cemetario, the Mexican version of the Voodoo Baron Samedi, a loa (god) of the dead. I own this piece of artwork depicting La Katrina and El Baron.

You can make your own sugar skulls with this recipe from tomzap online. You will need a skull mold or you can make your own.

Recipe for Sugar Skulls

    2½ cups sugar
    Egg white from 1 extra-large egg or 2 small eggs
    1 teaspoon light corn syrup
    1 teaspoon vanilla
    Cornstarch, about a half-cup, for powdering surface
    Colored sprinkles
    Food coloring
    Fine paintbrush
    Colored icing

    Sift sugar into a large mixing bowl. In another bowl, mix the egg whites, corn syrup, and vanilla.
    Slowly pour the liquid into the powdered sugar. Mix with your hands until a sandy dough forms. Form dough into a ball. At this point, you can continue, or you can refrigerate dough for later use.

    Lightly dust surface with cornstarch, as well as your hands. Pinch off a heaping tablespoon of dough, and shape it into a skull. If you're using them, lightly press colored sprinkles into the soft candy. Let the candy dry overnight.
    When candy is dry, use the paint brush with food coloring to decorate the skulls. Or you can use frosting (one that will dry hard) with a fine tip to decorate them.

    Hand them out as is, or wrap in a small cellophane bag tied closed with a small ribbon.


    The skulls may not dry completely on a humid or rainy day.

    The dough should be the consistency of damp sand, just moist enough to hold together. If the dough is too dry and crumbly, add 1 teaspoon of water at a time to moisten.
    If dough is too moist, add sugar 1 tablespoon at a time until dough is the right consistency.
    If the candy has trouble drying completely, place in a 125 degree warm oven until dry.

    More information on the customs for Dia de los Muertos can be found on these sites:

    Pictures of Die de lost Muertos

    Traditional recipes and other information

    More Day of the Dead History in Mexico

    There is plenty of writing inspiration here for literary folks and horror/fantasy enthusiasts. Opportunities abound. Happy writing and happy reading to all!


Frugal in WV said...

Love the sugared skulls recipe, those are such a neat idea! The skulls in your pics are beautiful!

Nora B. Peevy said...

Frugal, I just bought more Day of the Dead art yesterday. I went to get a sugar skull mold to make some plaster skulls for art projects and we found a vintage piece and another mask we liked. Have them on layaway at the moment. Can't wait to get them paid off and home on the wall.

Michael said...

Thats an amazing collection!

Stopping by from Chasing Joy's Flashback Friday

Erin O'Riordan said...

Nora, I may be wrong, but I believe the traditional date of el Dia de los Muertos is Nov. 2 (All Souls Day) rather than Nov. 1 (All Saints Day).

Either way, the folk art is fascinating. It's a wonderful idea to have a time to remember and celebrate lost loved ones.

I recently featured a post on Santa Muerte (Saint Death), another Mexican folk figure with roots in the PreColumbian past.

Sheila Deeth said...

That was fascinating. I love the vibrant colors.

Nora B. Peevy said...

I just got another mask. I actually have more than I posted and a lot of Mexican folk art. Living in NM, it was easy to come by and fun to shop for.

Erin, we are actually both right. The celebration takes place now over the 1swt and 2nd, but if you ask most people, they know it as the 2nd mainly. LOL And yes, I have Santa Muertas too. I love her and that folk art. I am actually writing about La Catrina for Shah's story hop with the pearls, which I hope I am not too late to enter into.