One of the most iconic and colorful items you will see during the Day of the Dead / Día de los Muertos festivities is the calavera. While most often associated with sugar skulls, calavera means “skull” but has come to refer to the whole skeleton! Traditional sugar skulls are made of sugar and decorated with icing to be fun and colorful, and they taste like candy. Some even have feathers, glitter, hats, or other objects attached to make them more personal. But be careful before you bite into one, it might not be made of sugar. In modern times, Calaveras or sugar skulls can be made of anything!
You might think that the sugar skulls are scary, but unlike the skulls you see at Halloween, these are happy, colorful, and smiling. The skulls are meant to capture feelings of joy and reflect the happy memories associated with lost loved ones. People will also paint their faces to look like a sugar skull or wear calavera masks to celebrate the holiday.
Sugar art was brought to the New World by Italian missionaries in the 17th century. Unable to afford stone sculptures to adorn their churches, Mexican Catholics used what they had in abundance - sugar - and the skill of sugar sculpting, taught to them by the missionaries. Made by pressing moistened sugar into clay molds, sugar sculpting allowed the church to create sculptures of angels, sheep, and sugar skulls for various religious holidays, including Día de los Muertos.
Calaveras represent a departed family member. Bright and cheerful in their expression and decoration, to remind the family of the joy and happiness their loved one once brought them. Calaveras are placed on family altars or gravestones to honor the return of a particular soul during the November 2 Día de los Muertos holiday.
Sugar skull art reflects big, happy smiles, colorful patterns, and sparkly adornments in Mexican folk art style. Sugar skulls are labor-intensive and made in small batches by skilled sugar skull makers. Their designs are often creative and extravagant, and skilled artists even have design competitions.