PHOENIX — The Day of the Dead is here and one of its most beloved symbols is the sugar skull. These colorful designs are represented in everything from candy and jewelry to tattoos and face paint.
The roots of Dia de los Muertos go back some 3,000 years. This Mexican holiday, observed Nov. 1-2, is a joyful celebration of the lives of family and friends who have passed away. Traditions like traveling to burial grounds, cooking food, decorating graves and hosting gatherings are among the many ways people honor Dia de los Muertos.
Over the years, the rituals have been adopted and adapted by cultures around the world.
Here’s everything to know about what sugar skulls signify and how to make your own.
What is a sugar skull?
According to mexicansugarskull.com, a website that sells handmade Day of the Dead crafts and promotes the holiday’s rituals, sugar skulls — calaveras de azúcar in Spanish — are traditional folk art from southern Mexico.
They are used as symbols to remember a person who has passed. Sugar skulls are made of a granulated white sugar mixture that’s pressed into skull-shaped molds and then decorated.
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What is the meaning behind the sugar skull?
Each sugar skull represents a departed loved one and is usually placed on an altar — an ofrenda — or even a gravestone as an offering to the spirit of the dead. Sugar skulls are often decorated with the person’s name.
“It’s the act of creating something dedicated to the memory of a person or even a pet, someone or something that you love and miss, that helps you revive their spirit,” said Michele Delgado, a computer science teacher and sugar skull maker. “When you lose people that you love, those moments that you have with them are when they were alive, so it’s important to enjoy those.”
Delgado, who teaches her students how to make sugar skulls to honor their heroes, family members, public figures and events, says making sugar skulls is a great way to bring people together.
“It’s a great community activity, family and friends getting together to dedicate (sugar skulls) to what they are seeking to remember and honor,” she said.
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Can you eat sugar skulls?
While sugar skulls with their colorful designs may seem enticing to eat, Delgado said they are more folk art than a sweet treat.
“There’s nothing inside them that would actually hurt you,” Delgado said. “But it would give you a stomach ache if you ate them. It’s all sugar and meringue. Those combined are really hard to digest. Sugar skulls are only air dried and meringue comes from egg whites. They are more for decoration on ofrendas.”
And not everything on a sugar skull is edible. MexicanSugarSkull.com notes that sugar skulls are commonly decorated with sequins, colored foils, feathers, beads and glitter.
How to make a sugar skull
You can find detailed instructions on many websites, including https://www.art-is-fun.com. That website says there is one crucial measurement for mixing sugar skull ingredients: For every cup of sugar, use one teaspoon of meringue powder and one teaspoon of water. You’ll need about two cups of sugar to make a large skull and about one cup to make a medium skull.
What you will need:
- Fine granulated sugar
- Powdered sugar (to make the royal icing to adhere and decorate the skull)
- Food coloring for designs
- Meringue powder (available at grocery, big-box stores like Target or Walmart, online vendors and craft stores like Michaels)
- Sugar skull molds (available at grocery and big-box retailers, online vendors and craft stores)
- Parchment paper
- Pieces of cardboard
Here are directions from art-is-fun.com on how to make sugar skulls:
- Mix together sugar, meringue powder and water until the mixture is wet and compact.
- Fill your skull mold firmly with the mixture and press down. Fill both the front and back of the skull molds. Make sure the sugar mixture is flat and you eliminate any excess sugar that is overfilling the mold.
- Place filled molds on top of parchment paper and cardboard and carefully lift the molds off. Each mold should come off right away.
- If the sugar sticks to the mold, your mixture is too wet. If this happens, restart by taking the sugar out of the mold and adding more dry granulated sugar.
- Let the skulls dry on the parchment and cardboard for at least 12 hours. Halfway through the drying process turn each piece over so the back can dry.
- Make a batch of royal icing. Spruce Eats has a handy recipe.
- Once your sugar skull is dry, put a thin later of royal icing on the flat parts of the skull, press the front and back halves together and let the whole skull dry for one hour. When the skull is completely dry, it’s ready to decorate with royal icing and any embellishments you like.
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Here are more sources of instructions on how to make sugar skulls:
How to draw a sugar skull
Want to draw a sugar skull instead? Visit design.tutsplus.com for a full tutorial on how to draw a sugar skull from scratch.