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Mexican Sugar Skulls: Why Catholics Shouldn't Cry Cultural Appropriation

Updated on September 10, 2018
Mictlantecuhtli, Aztec God of the Underworld.
Mictlantecuhtli, Aztec God of the Underworld. | Source

Let's just dive right into this:

How dare any Catholic lecture anyone about cultural appropriation.

Ignoring that Catholicism has been one of the most destructive forces in the history of mankind … ok, wait, let’s not ignore that.

Let’s not ignore that it was Catholics who “spread” Christianity throughout Europe, leaving a path of death and destruction in their wake. Let’s not forget the decimation of indigenous European peoples, faiths and cultures in the spirit of “eternal salvation,” or the genocide of non-believers. Let’s not forget the Black Plague, the Dark Ages, the Crusades or the Inquisition. And, in the context of this article, let us not forget that it was, overwhelmingly, Catholics who crossed the Atlantic to pillage, rape and kill all the peoples who lived south of, say, present-day Ohio.

White, European Catholics, mostly from Spain and Italy, arrived in the “New World,” determined to bend all indigenous peoples to their will. Conquistadors brutally murdered anyone who dared resist them. I suppose that, technically, Catholics have never been guilty of cultural appropriation because they rarely appropriated other cultures. The modus operandi of the Conquistadors was to flat-out crush all other "primitive" cultures beneath their boots!

So, yes, I do raise an eyebrow when the descendants of those white, European Catholic Conquistadors claim that - by wearing sugar skull makeup - folks north of the border are appropriating their culture, because what they are allegedly "appropriating" are remnants of white, European culture.

The more traditional celebration .... and no sugar skull makeup in sight!
The more traditional celebration .... and no sugar skull makeup in sight!

Few people know the history of their own religion, let alone someone else’s. So here it is: Way back when, Catholic missionaries, who hailed mostly from Greece, Italy and Spain, came up with a brilliant idea for the people of Northern Europe. You might be surprised to learn that those northern people were as resistant to Christianity as other indigenous peoples. So those missionaries, in an attempt to make Christianity more appealing, came up with the dastardly plan of “Christianizing” major pagan holidays. They started by hijacking one of the most popular northern European celebrations, Yule (Winter Solstice), by claiming it was Jesus’ birthday. They fudged it a little, so that Christmas would not fall exactly on the winter solstice, and withheld the fact that it was far more likely that Jesus was born in the summer, rather than at the end of December.

And voila! Christmas was born!

They did the same thing with Samhain (Sow-an), one of the most sacred holidays of the ancient Celtic people. Samhain was a sort of harvest festival, by which time animals should have been brought down from the fields to winter inside and all crops should have been harvested. It was also, more importantly, a day when the veil between the natural and supernatural worlds thinned; a day when not only ancestors’ spirits but also supernatural beings, such as fairies, could more easily cross into the natural world. The Celts honored their dead on this day, but with great caution; because the veil was lowered, they wore frightening costumes to scare away any malevolent supernatural visitors.

Samhain is a celebration of the ancient indigenous people of northern Europe.
Samhain is a celebration of the ancient indigenous people of northern Europe. | Source

I cannot emphasize this enough: Neither the ancient Celts nor modern-day witches fear death. Both honor their ancestors during Samhain; they even perform rituals to make it easier to communicate with those ancestors. However, ancient Celts believed - as modern witches believe - that malevolent, supernatural beings also exist in that beyond, and that they had to be careful to not let those beings pass over with their ancestors. It is why the closing of the gate is so important at the end of Samhain ritual; one must not allow the door to the other world to remain open, because we cannot control what might come through.

Because of the significance of Samhain to the Celts, Roman Catholics moved All Soul’s Day, a minor Catholic holiday, from October 1 to November 1, to “Christianize” the holiday. (The Eastern Orthodox and Byzantine (Greek) Catholics have several days throughout the year honoring the dead, so it was not necessary for those faiths to move All Soul’s Day to November 1.)

Not only did the Catholics hijack the holiday, but they murdered those folks who were resistant to Christianity and wanted to continue practicing the traditional, pagan ways. Remember: It was not Druids burning witches at the stake, but Catholics. Even after the Reformation, those old Catholic beliefs stuck with the new Protestant patriarchy; those beliefs led to the deaths of countless “witches,” even when there was no proof that they practiced witchcraft!

"Traditional" Sugar Skull ..... from Spain.
"Traditional" Sugar Skull ..... from Spain. | Source

Just like Christmas and Samhain, Dia de Muertos was too popular with the local indigenous people to be destroyed outright, so, as was their wont, the Catholics moved the date of the Day of the Dead from early August to All Soul’s Day. So, yes, to recap … the Catholics totally hijacked a northern European pagan holiday and yes, they did carry that stolen holiday to Mexico and South America and force it upon the indigenous people. They then added insult to injury by decreeing that those people could only honor their Christian ancestors and lesser-known Christian saints on Dia de Muertos. No Aztec gods, no pagans.

So yeah … Dia de Muertos is patently Catholic, and most of its traditions originated in Spain, not Mesoamerica. It falls on the same day as Halloween not because that was the day the Aztecs celebrated it, but because Samhain falls on that day.

But maybe you’re still convinced that, by painting their faces like sugar skulls, Americans are appropriating Latin American culture.

MICTECACIHUATL, Queen of the Underworld
MICTECACIHUATL, Queen of the Underworld | Source

Even without the corrupting influence of modern American Halloween and its insidious, rampant commercialism, traditional rituals associated with Dia de Muertos have stayed relatively the same over the past 100 years; painted faces were, sadly, never a part of that tradition. Modern Day of the Dead celebrations bear very little resemblance to what the Aztecs and indigenous people of central and southern Mexico traditionally celebrated the past few millennia. Although the Aztecs used skeletons in their rituals, they were not used to honor their ancestors; rather, "skeletal imagery was a symbol of fertility, health and abundance." 1 Only one tradition has truly been sustained: The Lady of the Dead presiding over the celebration.

Yes, there was an Aztec celebration honoring Mictlantecuhtli (God of the Dead, King of Chicunauhmictlan (the Underworld)), and his wife, Mictecacihuatl (Lady of the Dead, Queen of the Underworld and the Afterlife). However, rituals honoring "... Mictlantecuhtli sometimes involved ritual cannibalism, with human flesh being consumed in and around the temple;" 1 cannibalism is probably a tradition best forgotten. Mictecacihuatl is traditionally thought to watch over the bones of the dead and presides over the ancient festivals of the dead, and she still presides over modern celebrations. The difference is that the Aztecs honored Mictlantecuhtli and Mictecacihuatl directly, and certainly not their (Catholic) ancestors.

Last I checked, Catholicism doesn't encourage its followers to kill and eat people to appease ancient, pagan deities.

Additionally, holding vigil at ancestors’ graves, adorning gravestones with personal items, and lighting candles are all Spanish, Catholic funerary traditions brought to the New World by Spanish Conquistadors. They are not Aztec traditions, but rather they are the traditions of Aztec oppressors.

Dia de Muertos altar.
Dia de Muertos altar. | Source

Lastly, it is said that, unlike Halloween, Dia de Muertos isn’t scary, and that’s why it shouldn’t be celebrated alongside scarier Halloween traditions like ghosts and zombies. How’s this for not scary: Mictecacihuatl, The Lady of the Dead, was sacrificed as an infant; during that sacrifice she had all her skin flayed off. Her jaw was then torn open so she could spend eternity consuming stars during the day. Her husband, Mictlantecuhtli, wore a necklace of human eyeballs.

I dunno … sounds pretty scary to me.

At a time when most witches are just happy to practice their faith without anyone screaming for them to be burned at the stake, this new offensive by Catholics seems particularly silly. It also seems rather hypocritical that Catholics would say anything - at all, ever - about others “appropriating” their culture. Especially since Dia de Muertos has lost the one thing that tied it to ancient, Mesoamerican pagan tradition: Honoring Mictecacihuatl.

I dunno … maybe Americans should distance themselves from sugar skulls. Calavera, and more specifically, sugar skulls, were brought to the New World by European Conquerers, ergo, sugar skulls are a symbol of white, European, Catholic oppression. Even the sugar with which the skulls are made was only available because of slave labor in the Caribbean. These “traditions” were meant not to honor but to replace a beloved indigenous deity with Catholic swag … so maybe we shouldn’t want to borrow it.

Sugar Skull Makeup: Not traditional, definitely not indigenous ... but very Catholic.
Sugar Skull Makeup: Not traditional, definitely not indigenous ... but very Catholic.

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