For the past 10 years, Dia de Los Muertos has gained in popularity. So much so, that it is often associated, but celebrated separately, from Halloween. When UNESCO added Dia de Los Muertos to its list of intangible Cultural Heritage Lists, cultural imagery associated with the holiday such as Calaveras, or sugar skulls, went mainstream.
If you’ve ever wondered what is a sugar skull and why you see them everywhere, wonder no more. Here’s a quick history about this vibrant Folk Art tradition and how you can make sugar skulls part of your own Day of the Dead celebration.
What is a Sugar Skull?
Before we dive into the question of what is a sugar skull, it is important to understand to which holiday this Folk Art tradition is related. Day of the Dead, also known as Dia de Los Muertos, is a holiday that celebrates and honors deceased family and friends. The two main symbols of a Day of the Dead celebration are an ofrenda, or altar, and a calavera, or sugar skull. Sugar skull costumes are often worn on Dia de Los Muertos as part of a cultural Folk Art tradition.
Origin of the Sugar Skull
While Day of the Dead existed, in one form or another, for hundreds of years in the Aztec culture, it wasn’t until the Spaniards arrived in the Americas that sugar skulls were incorporated as a holiday tradition. As everyone learned in World History, the Spanish Explorers brought with them religion, the Spanish language, bullfighting and various arts and culture techniques.
One of those techniques just so happened to be the use of molds for making decorative objects. The Mesoamerican culture latched onto the mold making technique and, in short order, it was incorporated into their Day of the Dead celebrations.
Read More: Day of the Dead in Mazatlan
What is a sugar skull made of?
A sugar skull is made of… wait for it… sugar! If you think of what materials there might have been an abundance of in the 16th century, it would have been things like salt, sugar, corn, etc. Sugar just so happens to be a good agent for binding and to boot, it was cheap and in strong supply.
Today, sugar skulls can be formed using a store-bought mold. Sugar skulls are considered an edible decoration, only if made with food-based products and icing, but you better have the dentist’s number on hand because that’s a lot of sugar!
With what is a sugar skull decorated?
Sugar skulls are vibrant, bold and colorful. They are decorated with brightly colored frosting in motifs ranging from crosses and corazons to marigolds and mandalas.
When it comes to choosing colors for decoration, color iconography plays a big role. The colors you choose have as special a meaning as the sugar skull itself. For instance, red represents blood, orange represents the sun, yellow represents Mexican marigold (which represents death itself), purple is pain, and black symbolizes the Land of the Dead. In addition to frosting, Sugar Skulls are sometimes adorned with foil, beads, feathers, and rhinestones.
But, what is a sugar skull without a dedication to someone special? Oftentimes, a person’s name is added to the forehead of the sugar skull, the name of a person who is meaningful to you, regardless of whether that person has passed on or is still alive.
On what is a sugar skull placed?
A sugar skull is placed on an ofrenda during a Day of the Dead celebration. An ofrenda contains various offerings for the soul of the departed. These offerings might include papel picado (perforated and colorful banners), petals from cempasúchil flowers (also known as Mexican marigolds), and pictures or things that are emblematic of the person being honored. In addition to these items a sugar skull is decorated and placed alongside the ofrenda as a tribute to the deceased.
What is a sugar skull folk tradition for the mainstream to enjoy?
Setting up an ofrenda need not be limited to the strictly religious. An ofrenda can be a spiritual and cathartic way to grieve. Sugar skulls help people to honor and remember loved ones who have passed on. Sugar skulls can be incorporated into any memorial if you find significance in the tradition.
Even if you’re not religious, sugar skulls are mainstream in large part due to Hollywood movies like Coco and the Book of Life. Nowadays, you can find sugar skulls in the aisles of your favorite big box retailers. Sugar skulls are omnipresent and can be found in the house decor section, craft aisles, clothing department, and even the makeup counters.
How to Make Sugar Skull Costumes
Sugar skull costumes are popular both for Halloween and Dia de Los Muertos. To make sugar skull costumes you’ll really only need a Halloween makeup kit along with some big and bold artificial flowers. Other optional accoutrements for sugar skull costumes include long wigs, gemstones applied with lash glue, and fancy floral hats. When it comes to applying the make-up, sugar skull stencils can help you apply Calavera designs with precision, especially if you’re not good at drawing freehand.
However you choose to incorporate sugar skulls into your life, be that a Day of the Dead celebration or an altar, know that that that the history of sugar skulls is fascinating and has deep meaning. Sugar skulls represent more than just costumes and candied treats. Sugar skulls represent a celebration of life. And for that, everyone can cue the confetti.
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