Sugar skulls (Calaveras de Azucar) are used to entice the dead to visit the living during Dia de los Muertos in Mexico and other Latin American countries. Sugar is molded into the shape of a skull and then decorated into creative designs. Many of the designs have symbolic meaning. For example, candles within the hollowed out eyes mean remembrance. Cobwebs symbolize death while flowers within the sugar skull design symbolize life.
While Americans and Europeans only mourn loved ones after they die for about 5 day post-mortem, Mexicans celebrate the lives of the dearly departed through the annual Day of the Dead celebration which takes place over the course of three days (October 31, November 1, and November 2). The celebration makes use of sugar skulls, marigolds and sweet breads to entice the dead to visit the living.
The Aztecs venerated the goddess, Mictecacihuatl. She was considered the Lady of the Dead, a personification of death itself. In order to release the recently deceased individuals into Mictlan, loved ones had to make offerings to the goddess. This is similar to the concept of purgatory and it’s easy to see why the indigenous Mexicans were able to meld these beliefs so readily with Catholicism. The Dia de los Muertos festivities are not about the worship of Mictecacihuatl (also known as Santa Muerte). Instead, the festival recognizes the leveling power of death and celebrates the lives of the dead. Poor and rich are equals in the after-life.
Some have suggested that the worship of skeletons and skulls actually comes from Europe. Worship of skeletal figures has been common in Europe particularly during major epidemics.