A Sweet History of Sugar Skulls on Day of the Dead

Here's a fact: Did you know that the decorative colors each have their own symbolic meaning?

Photo: Mike Krautter

Today and tomorrow, people around the world celebrate Dia de los Muertos also known as The Day of the Dead. It is a festive holiday for families to pay tribute to los Muertos. Unlike Halloween the day before, The Day of the Dead is not meant to be scary but instead, it is a time of remembrance for loved ones who have passed on. Traditionally, festivities for the primarily Mexican heritage (Aztec ritual) take place between November 1 and 2. During this time, people journey to their family burial grounds and decorate their loved one's graves or ofrendas (alters) in a festive, fun, colorful, and decorative way. The Day of the Dead isn't limited to any one color palette: it's a wonderful display of vibrant hues like bright purples, pinks, orange, blues, white, and black. One of the most common decorations associated with this cultural holiday is the sugar skulls.

The sugar skull tradition can be traced back over 3,000 years ago. It is a tradition for families to head to the grave site at the stroke of midnight on October 31. There, they would decorate their loved ones' ofrendas with both large and small handmade sugar skulls. Most of the sugar skulls are made from a granulated white sugar mixture and pressed into a skull shaped mold. After the skulls take shape, they are then decorated with colorful icing, foil, ribbon, feathers, gems, and more. It's important to take note that on November 1 (All Saints Day), smaller sugar skulls are placed on the ofrendas or graves to remember the children that have passed on. Then, on November 2 (All Soul's Day), the smaller skulls are replaced with bigger more decorative skulls for the adults who have passed on.

These skulls are decorated beautifully, as they have the name of the deceased scrawled across the skull's forehead. Hand painted flower-like swirls and other fanciful designs are inked around the skull's eyes, cheek bones, and head. The Spanish term for skulls, calaveras, are not the only decorations present on the ofrendas during the festivities. Even the colors have symbolic meaning: yellow represents death, purple represents grief, and white represents purity and hope. Along with the sugar skulls and paper flowers, it is common for photographs of the dearly departed to be placed at the altar along with real flowers, candles, religious symbols, and personal items belonging to the deceased. Families will prepare the dearly departed's favorite meals, foods, and drinks as well as set the table with a seat open for their past loved ones. After the meal and celebration, families include hygiene necessities (wash bowl, razor, towels, and so on) so that the spirits can clean up and return to their afterlife (until next year).

However, you wish to celebrate this vibrant and spirited holiday, remember its sweet significance.

Here, Martha and LL Cool J demonstrate how to mold sugar skulls at home:

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