The Mexican sugar skull is the most popular symbol of Day of the Dead. So what are these colorful skulls? Why are they made and where do they come from?
Let's take a closer look at how the sugar skull tradition began!
Colorful sugar skull at Feria de Alfeñique in Toluca, Mexico
Photo credit: Jorge Nava
The origin of Mexican sugar skulls is tied to the history of sugar in Mexico, so let's start at the beginning:
Sugar was first introduced to the Americas before "Mexico" even existed as a country. After the Spanish colonizers arrived in 1521, they quickly discovered that the conditions in the "New World" were perfect for growing sugar on a mass scale. So beginning in the early 16th century, they set up large sugar plantations and imported African slaves (millions over the course of nearly 4 centuries) to perform all the hard labor required to grow sugar.
It's a sad start to the history of sugar skulls, but when considering the origin of Mexican sugar skulls, it's important to note that sugar is not actually native to Mexico at all.
The making of sugar figures is actually a European tradition as well, and can be traced back to Palermo, Italy, where figurines were made out of sugar as religious decorations. As Spanish Catholic beliefs began to mix with native Mesoamerican beliefs, the Mexicans started making sugar skulls as part of their Dia de los Muertos festivities, dating at least as far back as the mid-18th century; some say the 17th century. By the mid-19th century, it was common for skulls to bear the name of the recipient across the forehead.
Find out how to make sugar skulls!
Mexicans didn't have much money, but they did have a lot of sugar! This is probably why sugar skulls became so popular over the centuries.
As the years roll on, sugar skull designs have become ever more colorful, creative, and extravagant. Although skilled artisans compete for prizes in the annual Feria del Alfeñique (as described below), many sugar skulls are now mass-produced, causing some to worry that the making of sugar skulls is a dying art form.
However, with the help of the Internet, people around the world are now learning how to make sugar skulls. It is a fun activity for students and teachers, creating a wonderful opportunity for students to learn about Mexican culture and beliefs. As long as there is continued public interest in Mexico's colorful sugar skulls, there are sure to be artisans creating these beautiful skulls.
Every year from mid-October til the beginning of November, the city of Toluca, Mexico hosts the Feria del Alfeñique. Hundreds of vendors spend several months preparing for this big event, making hundreds of colorful sugar skulls as well as sugar coffins and animals of all kinds. Prizes are awarded to the best skull candy, so vendors take great care in trying to outdo one another with the most beautiful, decorated Mexican sugar skulls.
Rows and rows of Mexican sugar skulls at the Feria del Alfeñique
Photo Credit: Jorge Nava
At the Feria del Alfeñique, festive papel picado flutters along the tops of the booths which are stacked high with candy. Crowds mill through the market and purchase candies to give as presents or to place on altars.
"Alfeñique" derives from an Arabic word and refers to the sugar paste used in the making of Mexican sugar skulls. Vendors sell much more than just sugar skulls. They also sell:
Nearly everything is also available in chocolate form, such as chocolate skulls, chocolate skeletons, chocolate animals, etc. It really is a sugar-addict's heaven!
Some of the many different candies available at the Feria de Alfeñique,
such as sugar coffins, chocolate skulls, and sugar animals.
Photo credits: Jorge Nava
Learn more about sugar skulls: what they look like and how they are used.
Check out some Day of the Dead art inspired by Mexico's colorful sugar skulls.
Color your own skulls with this book of Sugar Skull Coloring Pages!
Thaneeya's newest sugar skull art will soon be available in a 2015 wall calendar to be released by Andrews McMeel Publishing on July 15, 2014, so you can enjoy my sugar skull art every month (and every day) of the year! The calendar features high-quality reproductions of 13 of her Day of the Dead sugar skull designs; plus a page for September, October, November and Decemeber, 2014 — so you can start using it this year!
The 2014 calendar sold out, so pre-order now to secure a copy!