Most big holidays revolve around jolly fat men, or bunny rabbits, but not this one. Día de los Muertos is a time to confront mortality, honor loved ones, and celebrate life — while we still have it.
On a recent weeknight, Michele Simons, founder of the Sugar Skull Gallery, helped San Francisco residents do just that.
Simons, an expert sugar skull maker, has begun to hold her annual skull workshops this week, the first of many kicking off the Día de los Muertos holiday season.
On October 31 each year, at the stroke of midnight, the festivities begin. According to legend, from Nov. 1 to Nov. 2, the spirits of the deceased are freed from heaven’s gates to reunite with their families. First the children, called angelitos or “little angels,” are welcomed home. Then the adults.
To welcome them, believers decorate elaborate altars with cempazuchil, or marigolds, hoping to tempt spirits with their bright colors and alluring scent. Sweet, sugar-dotted breads also line the altars, complementing fruit, rich mole sauces and glistening sugar skulls.
While the origin of these skulls remains unknown, their existence has been traced back to the 18th century, when imported Catholicism strongly impacted native Mexican cultures. The sugary sweets, some speculate, may be a relic of ancient times, when human skulls where kept as trophies, or offered to the gods as a sign of respect.
Whatever their origin, sugar skulls, also called calaveras, represent the sweetness of life and the certainty of death.
Simons, who will be running workshops throughout the month, first became interested in Día de los Muertos when her mother passed away in 1996.
Mourning her mother’s passing, Simons traveled to Pátzcuaro, Mexico, a small town famed for its Muertos celebrations. “It was so intimate,” she said, “up on a hill top in a cemetery.”
“I sat there all night with these wonderful old indigenous women. It was like they knew what was going on, and they looked after me.”
Simon still has the skull she purchased on that trip, embossed with her mother’s name: Constance.
Although her trip to Mexico prompted many more, this is the first year Simons is making a go at creating skulls full time. A San Francisco bartender for 18 years, she knew she knew she had to get away from “that scene.”
“It was just too much for me,” she recalled.
Now, Simons is looking to a new path. “I’ve always wanted to make art for a living,” she said, “and now I’m living the sweet life.”