El Dia de los Muertos is the most happening holiday in Mexico!
Families unite to honor their ancestors, embracing the inevitability of death with open arms. This tradition traces back to the Aztecs, who dedicated not just a few days, but an entire month to celebrate the departed souls.
Fast Forward to Today!
Though the Day of the Dead rituals were brought to the US by Mexican immigrants back in the 1890s, some Americans are still in the dark about the meanings behind celebrations at graves and mainly the skulls.
But thanks to Coco, the animated movie that captured hearts and tears, you might be familiar with the Day of the Dead (known as El Dia de los Muertos).
And if you're anything like me, you've wondered what those beautifully intricate skeleton faces are actually called.
Spoiler alert: they're not your run-of-the-mill Halloween skull mask – they're Calavera Masks!
Through a mix of eye-opening info, let's dive into the world of Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos) masks, so you can finally impress your friends or even transform into a walking work of art yourself.
Unmasking Day of the Dead Masks: A Brief History
Did Someone Say "Calavera"?
Admit it, we all thought it was just a fancy way of saying "skull."
Well, not quite.
In Spanish, "Calavera" is a fancy term for a skull that gets all dolled up for Day of the Dead parties!
But guess what?
It's not just human skulls! You can find Calavera Masks inspired by animals too - like dogs! Cue intense growling.
The Mask That Couldn't Wait for a Special Occasion
Imagine only coming out to play for one night every year - on El Dia de los Muertos.
Yup, we can't either.
Calavera Masks don't throw debutantes' balls every weekend – these attention-grabbing Day of the Dead masks save their appearances for a few special occasions - over the first two days in November when the Day of the Dead is celebrated.
But when they do show up, get ready for some serious fun and excitement!
- In true Mexican tradition, the first of these is the renowned Day of the Dead. In Mexico City, the Day of the Dead festivities is a multi-day celebration starting on October 31 and ending on November 2.
- The other would be the La Calavera Catrina Parades, where the Calavera-clad beauty meets a symbolic reflection on our mortality in a beautiful, cultural dance. And who wouldn't want to be part of that gorgeous dance? (keep reading for the 2023 parade dates for Mexico City)
Ever Heard of La Calavera Catrina Parade of Mexico City?
If you never heard of this parade, you're not alone.
La Calavera Catrina Parade, also known as the "Catrina Parade," or Dia de los Muertos Parade is a relatively new tradition.
It was actually inspired by the James Bond film "Spectre" (released in 2015), wherein the opening scene showcases a grand Dia de los Muertos parade in Mexico City.
In response to the film, Mexico City began hosting an annual Day of the Dead parade starting in 2016!
When Does it Take Place?
The parade typically takes place a few days before or after the Day of the Dead, making the streets come alive with Calavera-clad participants, sugar skulls, and giant skeleton floats, they play music and dance.
Be sure to check the exact dates each year, as they can vary. Here is the 2023 schedule and route.
A Feast of Heritage and Homage: The Cultural Significance of the Day of the Dead Celebrations
The Day of the Dead, or ‘Día de los Muertos,’ is not simply a Mexican version of Halloween, but a unique celebration steeped in rich cultural and historical significance.
Get ready for this lively festival, where families come together to honor their departed loved ones and celebrate their lives!
It's a time when the souls of the departed take a long journey to earth for a special visit to the world of the living, creating a unique reunion between the living and the dead.
The holiday bears witness to the convergence of indigenous Aztec rituals with Catholicism, introduced by the Spanish conquistadores.
And it's not really a spooky tradition! It's lovely.
Intricate altars, also known as 'ofrendas,' are crafted at home and at the deceased family members' grave sites.
In an effort to invite their lost loved ones back home for the day, Ofrendas are created and decorated with marigold flowers, family members light candles, display photographs of deceased relatives, and their favorite foods.
Pan de Muerto would be on the ofrenda for me, that's for sure - I love it!
Next people visit their deceased loved ones' graves and give them a thorough cleaning, and then they too are decorated in the same manner.
These ghostly invitations are set up in homes and at the cemetery to welcome back the spirits. It's all about celebrating the cycle of life and death while cherishing those family ties.
Unraveling the Symbolism of Calavera Masks
Symbolism is deeply interwoven in the fabric of the Day of the Dead, and the Calavera Masks are no exception.
The first Calaveras were made of clay and hand-painted by the indigenous people in Mexico.
Today, these ornately decorated skull masks are made of paper mache and serve as a vibrant reminder of life's transience and the inescapable eventuality of death. (You can also find them made of sugar or chocolate, but you can't wear those - you'd be a sticky mess!)
Yet, they also celebrate life and the enduring spirit of the departed.
Calavera Masks often feature intricate designs, with each pattern, color, and adornment bearing its own unique symbolism.
- Floral patterns are common, with marigolds being particularly significant; known as the 'flower of the dead,' marigolds are believed to guide souls back to the world of the living with their bright colors and potent fragrance.
Colors used in the designs also hold symbolic meanings.
- Black typically represents death, while purple is used to signify mourning. White symbolizes hope and purity, and pink celebrates life.
Moreover, the very act of wearing a Calavera Mask symbolizes acceptance of one's mortality, a key theme of the Day of the Dead.
It also represents the notion of unity:
- in death, all are equal, regardless of status or wealth in life.
In essence, the Calavera Mask is more than an artistic masterpiece; it is a powerful symbol of life, death, and the enduring connection between the living and the dead.
When one dons a Calavera Mask, they embrace a rich tradition that celebrates life even in the face of death.
La Calavera Catrina: The Elegant Skull
La Calavera Catrina, often referred to as "The Elegant Skull," is a quintessential symbol of the Day of the Dead.
La Calavera Catrina ("The Dapper [female] Skull") had its origin as a zinc etching created by the Mexican printmaker and lithographer José Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913) around 1910. - Wikipedia
Check out this suave skeleton I purchased in Mexico - I have a small collection!
Calavera Catrinas usually wears a fancy hat symbolizing high social status, originally created by the Mexican artist José Guadalupe Posada, it was a clever way to poke fun at Mexico's obsession with European culture and the habit of indigenous people imitating European fashions instead of embracing their own Mexican heritage.
Spooky and stylish, this skeletal figure has quite the story to tell!
Over time, La Catrina has evolved into a beloved icon of the Day of the Dead celebrations, embodying the holiday's playful, life-affirming spirit.
She represents the irreverence towards death, embracing it as an equalizing force; in the face of death, everyone, regardless of their social standing or wealth, is reduced to a bare skeleton.
By adorning herself with symbols of high status, Catrina satirizes the futile attempts to escape the inevitability of death.
Yet, La Calavera Catrina is not merely a figure of satire or morbidity.
She also embodies the joy and vibrancy of the Day of the Dead celebrations. Her finely detailed and colorful attire, often embellished with marigolds and other symbols associated with the holiday, signifies the beauty and richness of Mexican culture.
When partaking in Day of the Dead celebrations, many people dress up as La Catrina, painting their faces in intricate designs to honor the dead and celebrate life.
In essence, La Calavera Catrina is a potent symbol of the Dia de los Muertos, a figure that encapsulates the Mexican attitude toward death - one of acceptance, humor, and celebration.
She serves as a vibrant reminder to honor our roots, cherish our lives, and laugh in the face of death.
A Protective Mask or Simply Art?
Calavera Masks aren't just a pretty fashion accessory – they also serve as a symbol of protection for the wearer.
According to tradition, the masks are believed to guard the living from death and bring luck and prosperity. Pretty neat, huh?
A Face for the Dead (and the Living)
While it isn't every day you get to prep for the Dia de Los Muertos Mexican holiday, you're ready and raring to go now that you know the meaning behind Calavera Masks.
Whether you're looking to DIY your own masterpiece (kudos to you!) or just trying to look creepy-chic and culturally informed at your next event, these masks hold the key to a unique, fun-filled experience.
From Humble Beginnings to Calavera Couture
Your average Calavera Mask isn't just slapped together haphazardly – these expressive works of cultural brilliance require a lot of intricate effort and talent to create.
Starting from their humble beginnings as sugar skulls, Calavera Masks took on a life of their own as an emblem of the traditional Mexican holiday. Each detail is carefully crafted to provide a unique and stylish vibe, making us secretly wish we, too, were fashionable skeletons.
DIY Calavera Mask: A Step-by-Step Guide
Unleash your creativity and honor the Day of the Dead tradition with your very own handcrafted Calavera Mask. Here's a step-by-step guide to help you create your masterpiece:
- Gather Your Materials: You'll need a plain mask (available at craft stores), acrylic paint (white, black, and a few other colors of your choice), paintbrushes of varying sizes, and possibly some decorative items like sequins or glitter glue.
- Painting the Base: Start by painting the entire mask with white acrylic paint - this will form the basic 'skull' of your Calavera. Let it dry completely.
- Sketching the Design: Lightly sketch your design onto the mask using a pencil. You may want to include patterns around the eyes, cheekbones, forehead, and chin. Designs often include flowers, hearts, leaves, or geometric shapes. Don’t forget to sketch the nose, typically depicted as an upside-down heart or a spade shape.
- Adding Color: Fill in your design with your chosen colors. You can use black paint for the eyes, nose, and mouth. Let each color dry before adding the next to avoid smearing.
- Detailing: Use a fine-tip paintbrush or a marker to outline your filled-in designs, adding depth and dimension to your mask.
- Final Touches: Now's the time to add any additional decorations, like sequins or glitter, for that extra sparkle. Use craft glue to adhere these onto the mask.
- Sealing the Mask: Once everything is dry, spray a clear acrylic sealer over the mask to protect your artwork. This will also give your mask a nice glossy finish.
Now you're ready to flaunt your DIY Calavera Mask proudly (or check out the videos below 🙂). Remember, there are no rules in art, so feel free to get as imaginative and vibrant as you wish in your happy crafting!
The Mexican Holiday Calendar Surrounding the Day of the Dead
The Day of the Dead, All Saints' Day, and All Souls' Day make up a triduum of celebrations known for their rich cultural traditions, spiritual significance, and vibrant festivities.
Here's a brief calendar of these holidays:
- October 31 - The Day of the Dead festivities begin. This is a day for remembering dead children, often referred to as Dia de los Innocentes (Day of the Innocents) or Dia de los Angelitos (Day of the Little Angels). Family members light candles and place them on the altars that are built and decorated with sugar skulls, marigold flowers, small toys, and the favorite foods and drinks of the dead children are displayed, along with their photographs.
- November 1 - Also known as All Saints' Day, this is a day for honoring all the saints, known and unknown. In many traditions, All Saints' Day is also used to remember deceased relatives who passed as adults. People visit the cemetery and the altars that are built are adjusted to include the favorite items of the adult spirits returning to visit from the spirit world. All Saints Day is celebrated by Roman Catholics on November 1st. On All Saints Day, the Catholic church recognizes and honors those who have reached heaven
- November 2 - All Souls' Day, or Dia de los Muertos, is the culmination of these remembrances. On All Souls' Day, is when go to the cemetery to clean and decorate the grave sites of their deceased loved ones, often with items that the departed enjoyed in life.
Each of these days presents an opportunity for families to remember loved ones who have passed on, to honor their memory, and to celebrate the continuity of life at the cemetery or at home.
During the Day of the Dead celebration, it's believed that the souls of the deceased come back to earth to reunite with their loved ones.
- Get ready for the arrival of Angelitos (little angel spirits) on October 31st, at midnight, staying for a full 24 hours.
- And that's not all! Adults join the party on November 1st, sticking around in celebrations with their families until November 2nd before heading back to the afterworld.
Let the festivities begin!
And That's It!
So, the next time you see a Calavera Mask, take a moment to appreciate the depth of culture and tradition behind it.
And who knows, maybe even consider donning one yourself as a tribute to this beautiful and meaningful Dia de los Muertos holiday.
And for those of you in Latin America,
Viva la vida!
So, embrace life, celebrate death, and stay curious!
Keep honoring your ancestors and celebrating life, because as they say in Mexico, "Los muertos no se van del todo, nunca los olvidamos." (The dead never truly leave us; we never forget them.)
¡Hasta la próxima vez - nos vemos en el próximo festival de Día de Muertos! (See you at the next Day of the Dead celebration!)
¡Feliz Día de Muertos! (Happy Day of the Dead!)
I thought about not listing this crown DIY video due to the potential hazard to people's eyes from the zip ties. Please consider not using them. You can use fern fronds, or soft grasses, or leave them out.