Day of the Dead: the story of the sugar skulls

The Day of the Dead is one of the most deeply rooted and respected Mexican traditions throughout the Mexican Republic. It is a celebration of deep mysticism; which pays tribute to the faithful departed and through a colorful and meaningful offering, they are invited to visit the homes of those who miss them so much. Offering on the Day of the Dead is the cultural mix where ritual and memory converge, It is to share with our deceased the food that they liked in life and to dialogue with their memory. It takes place on November 1 and 2 and is linked to the Catholic celebrations of All Souls’ Day and All Saints. Through colorful and significant offerings, those who are no longer there are remembered, although there are different styles of offerings, some elements are simply indispensable: flowers, candles, incense, water, food, portraits, bread of the dead, are some basic. Nevertheless, no offering is complete without the traditional sugar skulls.

The origin of the sugar skulls dates back to Mesoamerican cultures, which believed that death was the conclusion of a stage of life that extended to another level. They are popularly known as skulls of alfeñique and are usually made mainly of sugar, although there are also versions of chocolate, amaranth and other local ingredients. There are also references in which they relate to the Hispanic tradition of All Saints, in the sixteenth century. These skull-shaped sweets began to be manufactured with a technique that was introduced by the Spanish and it is believed that they were designed in order to simulate being bone relics of various saints.

The truth is that for these cultures it was common preserve skulls that were exhibited during the rituals of the cult of death. The altar of ancient cultures was called “Tzompantli” and was adorned with skulls of people who had been sacrificed in honor of the gods. Said skulls were threaded through holes made in the sides. Later, after the arrival of the Spanish colonizers, these rituals were prohibited for going against the Catholic religion.

Sugar skulls are made with the technique of “alfeñique” which refers to the mixture of ingredients that form the paste with which the skulls are formed, which contains: glass or cane sugar, egg white, drops of lemon juice and a plant called “chaucle”. Regarding the technique of the weakling, it is known that it is of Arab origin and that it was adopted by the Spanish, who introduced it to Mexico. The word “weakling”Comes from the Andalusian Arabic al fayníd, the word used to designate the sugar paste cooked and stretched into bars.

Why are they so important in the offering?

Sugar skulls are usually placed on Day of the Dead altars in honor of those who are no longer there. In fact, it is very common for them to wear small signs in the forehead area with the names of the deceased and it is not only a way of inviting the souls to visit the altars. But not only that, they also usually carry the names of people in life, such as a reminder that the only thing we have insurance in this life, is death.

The making of sugar skulls is an artisan technique and that on many occasions it is passed from generation to generation, as happens with the irresistible bread of the dead. They come in all sizes and are usually decorated with colorful flowers and other ornaments. Although there are delicious variants of chocolate and amaranth, the most traditional are the sugar skulls. They are usually made throughout the Mexican Republic and sold in local markets, however it is known that Puebla, Guanajuato, the State of Mexico Michoacán and Oaxaca are the main producers of alfeñique. They are such an important element for Mexican culture that every year in Toluca there is a fair dedicated to the technique of the alfeñique from the second week of October until November 2.

How are sugar skulls made?

The first step is to form a moldable paste, which is made with a base of cane or glass sugar with lemon juice, egg whites, from this mixture a smooth, white paste is obtained and to which no type of coloring is added. . Currently, the recipe has varied according to each region of Mexico in which it is made, since in some states like Puebla peanuts are added, or in Oaxaca they usually integrate bee honey. It is also very normal to integrate a little vanilla essence.

The master confectioners and artisans begin by shaping the skulls and once they solidify, they decorate them with lines and flowers of another sweet with vegetable inks. They commonly use colors such as green, blue, purple, yellow or red. The final step is to integrate in the forehead of the skulls, metallic gloss papers of different colors with the names of the living and the dead. Finally, heas skulls remind us of the importance of enjoying the now and invite us to honor life.

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