OLD BONES

Lighthearted skeleton figurines have come to be a widely recognized symbol of the annual Day of the Dead celebration.

ALTHOUGH THE DAY
of the Dead cemetery vigils are taken quite seriously, there’s a humorous side to the holiday too.

Two sets of iconic images -- grinning sugar skulls and beaming folk-art skeletons -- have come to represent the holiday. They fill Mexican markets each year as exaggerated winks at the darkness of death.

Each has its own history. The Spaniards brought sugar to Mexico during the conquest. While some evidence suggests that sweets were already being used as offerings to the dead in Mexico, the skulls aren’t specifically mentioned in Mexican history until 1841, when the wife of a Spanish diplomat reported seeing them at a Mexican market.

Historians aren’t exactly clear about how the skulls, which are generally eaten during Day of the Dead, evolved in Mexico. One theory is that the imagery is tied to the ancient Aztecs’ practice of displaying human skulls on racks. Another suggests that the skulls evolved out of Mexicans’ attitudes about death. In Nobel Prize winner Octavio Paz’s classic work The Labyrinth of Solitude, he writes that while death “burns the lips” of other cultures, the “Mexican, in contrast, is familiar with death, jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it; it is one of his favorite toys and his most steadfast love.”

The skeletons are similarly whimsical, but they are not eaten, as they are constructed from papier-mâché, clay, wood, or a variety of materials. They wear regular clothes and mimic scenes from everyday life -- a soccer game, a hospital operating room, a wedding, and the like. Other skeletons might be dressed like nineteenth-century dandies, a look popularized by José Guadalupe Posada, a newspaper engraver who used the skeletons to satirize corrupt Mexican officials and classism in the decades before the Mexican Revolution.

“I think the humor is unique to Mexico,” says Stanley Brandes, professor of anthropology at the University of California at Berkeley and author of Skulls to the Living, Bread to the Dead: The Day of the Dead in Mexico and Beyond. “There’s no other country that celebrates All Saints’ and All Souls’ Day with as much humor, music, and just the sense of gaiety.”