Over the past few years, sugar skull face painting has become a hip trend. There is more to this culturally appropriated trend than those adorning the painted face may realize. The skull - or calavera - has a rich cultural meaning that's tide into the Day of the Dead - Día de Muertos.
What some may think of as the Mexican Halloween, is anything but. Dia de Muertos is a joyous cultural celebration honoring the lives of the departed. It's believed that for two days - starting on the eve of October 31st to November 2nd - that the gates of heaven open, allowing loved ones to come back from the dead and walk among the living.
That may sound like a "Walking Dead" episode, but it's quite the opposite. The colorful, lively holiday celebrates the departed souls of loved ones and friends like you would celebrate their birthday. There is no mourning or sadness, simply celebration. It is believed that for these two days, friends and family can reunite with loved ones, and take part in the festivities they have set forth for the celebration.
Tombs are decorated, bands play, and people gather in the village. Altars called ofrendas are decorated with candles, marigolds, food, the deceased's favorite belongings, sugar skulls - calavera de azucar, and more.
The skull itself is an important symbol of this holiday. In western culture, we tend to think of skulls as gruesome objects, but in Mexico, the skull has a positive connotation. Rather than death being the final stage of life, it is seen as a rebirth into a higher state.
For Día de Muertos, painting a skull mask allows one to overcome the fear of death and get in touch with their darker side. Masks have long represented a powerful object throughout history that are often used for celebrations or ceremonies. The adorning of a sugar skull mask, albeit a newer tradition for this ancient holiday, is part of honoring life and death.
You may notice marigolds are often tied in to sugar skull face painting, as they are not without their own meaning. The marigold is considered to be the flower of the dead. The strong scent helps loved ones find their way back to the living.
So much more than a holiday with beautiful face painting and colorful clothing, Día de Muertos is an outpouring of love and excitement that also celebrates just how short life is, and that's an incredible feeling.