Floral Sugar Skull Face Mask
The Origin of Sugar Skulls
The reason goes all the way back to prehistoric times when the skull was a predominant figure in Mesoamerican societies and cultures in various aspects and depictions. One of these depictions was the tzompantli, a wooden rack in which the skulls of war prisoners or human sacrifices were displayed. These civilizations believed in a spiritual life after death, and so these skulls were an offering to the god of the underworld, Mictlantecuhtli, who would assure safe passage into the land he ruled. The tzompantli could also be an altar illustrating this journey from the terrestrial life into the spiritual one, and it’s not uncommon to find sugar skulls that are decorated and colored with Mictlantecuhtli’s face!
With the arrival of the Spanish conquerors and their religion, these traditions were lost, and yet a part of them was kept alive by maintaining the figure of the skull in a sweet confection that we can place in our altars as part of our offerings to the deceased.
These sugar skulls are made from a paste called alfeñique, which is a mixture of sugar, hot water, and lemon—among other ingredients—that creates a moldable mass akin to caramel. This paste allows for artisans to mold it into the shape of a skull to later decorate it for display. Of course, depending on where you see these sugar skulls, you’ll find that a lot of them are made with neither alfeñique nor chocolate. While these sweet skulls are found all over Mexico, some states prefer to make these confections with other ingredients, such as almonds, honey (and covered with peanuts), amaranth (which is kind of like little balls of grain compressed into different shaped), and even gummies! The reason they come in different sizes, besides decoration purposes, is because small skulls are usually meant to represent children, while the bigger skulls represent adults and elders.
Sugar Skull history
At first, it was only a day off elementary school, and either the previous day or the next one, there would be a school festival where we would read our “literary Calaveras”: satirical poems in which the author writes about Death coming to the world of the living to take someone to the land of the dead. Each classroom would make an altar or “ofrenda” for a Mexican celebrity, with everyone contributing the different elements it contains, and then the altars would be displayed outside each classroom to commemorate all the people who had contributed to our culture in one way or another.
As the years went by, some parts of the celebration remained (such as the making of an altar for a Mexican or Latin American celebrity), while some others were taken away (it eventually stopped being a day off school) and some others were added. When I grew older, we started going to the cemetery each November 2nd—the day we celebrate Día de Muertos in my hometown—or the following Saturday to spend some quality family time gathered around the tombstones of relatives who had passed on. It was here that I started noticing the small sugar skulls some people would lay on the tombstones of their loved ones.
Sugar skulls are an incredibly important part of an altar, but I found it strange that, of all the decorations we put up in an ofrenda, the sugar skulls were the ones that people took to the cemetery, too. I figured it was the easiest one to carry and also the one that lasts the most in the elements. I didn’t think too much of it, and it wasn’t until years later that I took a moment to question this fact that had been part of my life for such a long time.
Seeing these sugar skulls displayed throughout all the vendor stands in the city made me pause for a moment. Throughout school, I had been taught of the meanings of the various offerings in a Day of the Dead altar. I knew why we put up Papel Picado, why we made a trail of petals of cempasúchil flowers (also known as Mexican marigolds), why we would add the favorite foods and drinks of the people the altar was made for, but the sugar skulls always seemed only decoration to me. As I mentioned before, I had never stopped to think about why they were such an indispensable element of an ofrenda. It seems a bit morbid to display skulls in an altar, even if those skulls are small, made of sugar, and edible, as well as quite tasty!