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A sugar skull, a common gift for children and decoration for the Day of the Dead.

A calavera (Spanishpronounced [kalaˈβeɾa] for "skull"), in the context of Day of the Dead, is a representation of a human skull or skeleton. The term is often applied to edible or decorative skulls made (usually with molds) from either sugar (called Alfeñiques) or clay, used in the Mexican celebration of the Day of the Dead (Spanish: Día de Muertos) and the Roman Catholic holiday All Souls' Day. Calavera can also refer to any artistic representations of skulls or skeletons, such as those in the prints of José Guadalupe Posada, or to gifts or treats in relation to the Day of the Dead. [1] Some widely known calaveras are created with cane sugar, decorated with items such as colored foil, icing, beads, and sometimes objects such as feathers. They range in multiple colors.[2]

Traditional methods for producing sugar skulls with molds have been in use for a long time,[3] though the first known mention of the sale of skeletal figures dates to the 1740s.[1] The sugar skulls were originally created as gifts, to be eaten by children. They are sometimes now used as offerings to be placed on altars known as ofrendas ("offerings") for Día de Muertos. It has been argued that the tradition has roots in indigenous celebrations, by groups including the Aztec, Mayan, and Toltec commemorations. [4] However, what we now call Day of the Dead is more Catholic than indigenous because the Spanish tried to eradicate indigenous religions[5] Moreover, as Stanley Brandes has argued, these skulls and skeletons have seven characteristics. They are: (1) ephemeral; (2) seasonal; (3) humorous; (4) secular; (5) commercial; (6) made for living people; (7) meant to be played with; (8) small and transportable; (9) made and consumed by an urban population.[6] They are "lighthearted emblems of death."[1] Thus they are not derived from sacred Mesoamerican traditions.

Sugar skulls were not traditionally used on loved ones' ofrendas, though they are now.[7] In Mexico, children who have died are celebrated on 1 November. Adults are thought to return on 2 November. It is believed that the departed return home to enjoy the offerings on the altar.[8] Some believe that they consume the essence of the food offerings, others believe they merely sense or savor them without consuming them.

In pre-Columbian times, the images of skulls and skeletons were depicted in stone carvings (and sometimes in the form of real skulls) because bones were thought to be important repositories of life energies and power.[5] The Spanish also utilized skulls as memento mori symbols.

During the 19th and 20th centuries, caricaturists, most eminently Manual Manilla and José Guadalupe Posada made influential calaveras, which were accompanied by satirical, rhymed commentaries. The most famous one was Posada's Catrina, who wears a big feathered hat. She was elaborated by Diego Rivera into a full figure with a long dress, and this figure has been reworked by many other artists.[9] Catrina is the most famous figure associated with the Day of the Dead.[4] [9]

During Day of the Dead, skulls and skeletons are created from many materials such as wood, sugar paste, nuts, chocolate, etc.[9] When sugar skulls are purchased or given as gifts, the name of the deceased is often written with icing across the forehead of the skull on colored foil.


Sugar skulls before decoration.

Traditional production methods with molds have been used for a long time. The process involves using molds to cast the calaveras. Production can be a lengthy process: a craftsman who creates elaborate calaveras might spend four to six months producing and decorating the skulls for a season. The most elaborately made sugar skulls are considered folk art, and are not meant to be consumed.[3]

The production process is more focused on the aesthetic appeal of the skull than on the taste or food safety of the product. Furthermore, many calaveras feature inedible decorations, such as beads, feathers, and foil. Some skulls are decorated with sombreros, although these designs are not as popular as they were in the 1970s.[3]

The calaveras are traditionally sold at outdoor market stalls beginning days or a couple of weeks before the Day of the Dead. The most famous place to purchase sugar skulls and related confections (chocolate, marzipan, candied vegetables, etc.) is the Alfeñique fair in Toluca, which is near Mexico City.

Sugar skulls offered for sale in Mexico.
Large sugar skull offered for sale in Mexico.
"Calaveritas" (little skulls) made of chocolate and sugar for sale in Mexico.

Some calaveras are produced to be edible. Most are cast as one piece from cane sugar, which can either be left unflavored or else flavored with vanilla.[10] Some calaveras are also made from chocolate. The calaveras are typically colored with vegetable dyes. As with the more decorative calaveras, these will sometimes have names written on the foreheads, as well. Calaveras may be eaten, or kept for a few days and then thrown away.[citation needed]

Clay skulls[edit]

Clay toy variations of calaveras also resemble the shape of human skulls. These toys are often painted a metallic silver color, but they may also be found in colors such as white, black, and red. Beaded eyes of many colors may also be added for decoration.[citation needed]

Literary calaveras[edit]

Poetry written for the Day of the Dead are known as literary calaveras, and are intended to humorously criticize the living while reminding them of their mortality.[11][12] The important precedent for this development is the first illustrated paper that was published in Mexico. Called El Calavera, it began publishing in 1847, illustrated with a skull-faced figure, but the paper was quickly suppressed. An "offering" to President Benito Juarez illustrated with skull and bones was published in 1871. Today literary calaveras are given to family members and friends; published and illustrated versions satirize celebrities and famous organizations in the press. [1]

Literary calaveras flourished in the late 19th century, accompanied by drawings that satirized important politicians. Living personalities are depicted as skeletons, exhibiting recognizable traits, making them easily identifiable. Additionally, drawings of fictional dead personalities often contained text elements providing details of the deaths of various individuals.

Face painting[edit]

The act of painting a human face to resemble a skull, sometimes known as facepainting, "sugar skull" make-up, Catrina, or Calaca face paint, is not a traditional practice during Day of the Dead (except for Catrina impersonators). However, it has become popular in recent years, particularly in urban centers.[13][14]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d Cordova, Ruben C. (2005). "Calaveras". In Ilan Stavans, ed. in chief, and Harold Augenbraum, assoc. ed., Encyclopedia Latina: History, Culture, and Society in the United States. Danbury, Conn.: Grolier Academic Reference, 4 vols.: I: 248 – 249
  2. ^ About an José Guadalupe Mexicano Posada's Calavera Revolucionaria, Chicana and Chicano Space, archived from the original on 4 April 2008, retrieved 19 June 2018, Posada created many images of calaveras (skeletons) performing many different human activities. These images were/are used for the Day of The Dead celebrations in Mexico.
  3. ^ a b c "Day of the Dead ~ Frequently Asked Questions". Reign Trading Co. Archived from the original on 19 June 2018. Retrieved 19 June 2018.
  4. ^ a b Turim, Gayle (2 November 2012). "Day of the Dead Sweets and Treats — Hungry History". History TV. Archived from the original on 10 March 2018. Retrieved 19 June 2018.
  5. ^ a b Cordova, Ruben C. (October 31, 2019). "Is Day of the Dead More Indigenous or Catholic? Friars Durán and Sahagún vs. Wikipedia". Glasstire. Retrieved July 2, 2023.
  6. ^ Brandes, Stanley (1998). "Iconography in Mexico's Day of the Dead: Origins and Meaning". Ethnohistory. 45 (2): 181–218. doi:10.2307/483058. JSTOR 483058 – via JSTOR.
  7. ^ Chef, Katelyn (28 October 2016). "A Sweet History of Sugar Skulls on Day of the Dead". Martha Stewart. Retrieved 19 June 2018.
  8. ^ Gavrilova, Anabela (12 August 2013). "Sugar Skulls' status in popular culture: What is their meaning and where do they originate from?". Cruel Daze of Summer. Retrieved 19 June 2018.
  9. ^ a b c Cordova, Ruben C. (November 2, 2019). "José Guadalupe Posada and Diego Rivera Fashion Catrina: From Sellout To National Icon (and Back Again?)". Glasstire. Retrieved July 3, 2023.
  10. ^ Brandes, Stanley (8 January 2007). Skulls to the Living, Bread to the Dead: The Day of the Dead in Mexico and Beyond. Wiley-Blackwell. p. 43. ISBN 978-1-4051-5248-8.
  11. ^ Rangel, Sonia. "Calavera poetry reading slated for Nov. 1". Tejano Tribune. Archived from the original on 28 July 2009. Retrieved 19 June 2018.
  12. ^ Barradas, Francisco (1 November 2007). "Calaveras and Posadas". El Tecolote. Archived from the original on 19 November 2007. Retrieved 19 June 2018.
  13. ^ Devash, Meirav. "5 Things to Know Before Doing Dia de Los Muertos Makeup". Allure. Retrieved 2018-10-07.
  14. ^ Bachman, Stephanie. "The Origins of Sugar Skull Facepaint: Day of the Dead". Retrieved 2018-10-07.

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