What is a Day of the Dead "Calavera"?

Posada illustration
The "Gran calavera eléctrica" (Grand Electric Skull) by José Guadalupe Posada. Photo © U.S. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

Definition:
The Spanish word calavera means a human skull (plural, calaveras) and is strongly associated with the Mexican public holiday el Día de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead).

A form of memento mori, a calavera comprises a representation of a human skull -- either physically, or depicted through literature or art. A calavera generally might refer to any of the following:

Candy formed in the shape of a human skull and decorated
Originally handmade from sugar and intended for consumption or to decorate an ofrenda (Day of the Dead altar), sugar skulls are sweet decorated tweets that have long been a part of Day of the Dead celebrations and often bore the name of the deceased across the skull's forehead, written in icing.

Today, as the art of handcrafting sugar skulls declines, families often purchase mass-produced, non-edible calaveras, although edible versions made from sugar, chocolate or some other confectionary ingredient remain available.

Satirical poems suggesting a living person is dead
Often written and/or recited during Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico, these poems can include illustrations and often make fun of prominent people in a humorous manner as a reminder to them and everyone else that, regardless of someone's station in life, everyone will eventually end up as a skull and bones, i.e., we are all mortal.

Any type of art or object that depicts a human skull(s)
Mexican artist and printmaker José Guadalupe Posada is widely identified with calaveras and the Day of the Dead because of his many illustrations depicting animated skulls/skeletons in everyday scenes (such as the illustration above), but technically anything depicting a human skull might be referred to as a calavera.

This includes paintings, drawings, sculptures, cartoons, etc., as well as everyday items, such as bracelets, rings, earrings, clothing and toys.

Word Variations:
A calavera can also be referred to as a calaverita, meaning "little skull," and calavera de azúcar, meaning "sugar skull."

Additional Articles of Interest:
What are Memento Mori?


What is the Day of the Dead (el Día de los Muertos)?
How to Build a Day of the Dead Altar 

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