The Story Behind Those Sugar Skulls

Technically candy, they’re a Day of the Dead staple

Sugar skulls are a common sight in Mexico in the weeks leading up to the Day of the Dead. These are what are known as alfeñiques, which are confections that are molded from sugar paste.

According to historical records, back in 1630, Francisco de la Rosa, a common citizen in the city of Toluca (near Mexico City) asked the royal Spanish crown for permission to make the candy his momma used to make back home. (Apparently the crown was very strict about candy making way back then.) He set up a shop, and his recipe is said to have morphed into what alfeñiques are today. Surprisingly, nowhere in this story is there mention of any dentists. In Toluca, there is a whole fair dedicated to these sugar handicrafts, which range from kneaded sugar dough, crystalized sugar syrup, molded chocolate and pumpkin seed candy. Artisans from Oaxaca take pride on their ability to make crosses, skulls and flowers with honey in the middle, while artisans from Puebla are famous for making coffins with almonds, peanuts or pumpkin seeds.

calaveras.JPGEach artisan has their own alfeñique recipe, but some of the basic ingredients are sugar, egg whites, lime juice and a special plant root called papaloquelite. The coloring and painting of the alfeñiques are also basically the same, with vegetable dye added to the paste or brushed onto the sugar pieces. These piece might come from a clay mold or a wood shaper, depending on the artisan’s preferred technique. Some alfeñiques are as tiny as a quarter, so a lot of patience and a steady hand are required.

Why do sugar skulls have all those squiggly lines and pops of color? Well, around the eyes, flowers are drawn, so your sight will only see beautiful things. On the forehead or top of the skull, another flower is for a blessing. On the cheeks, there used to be more traditional tribal designs, like deer for good luck or plants for heath, but these have given way to more modern patterns. I think honestly not everyone could fit these marvelous designs onto the skulls, and they just turned into colorful scribbles. Also, a big mustache must be drawn if the skull is a macho man!

What’s the whole point of alfeñiques, you might wonder? Well, instead of cooking a deceased person’s favorite foods to place in a Day of the Dead altar, alfeñiques can be used instead. Alfeñiques are made into as many shapes as you can think, from chicken mole to pears and apples. They are specially made for the “little angels” (children who went to heaven) since they are technically candy.

Mexican sugar skulls often have a name written on the forehead, and there are two versions of why. One says that it’s the name of the deceased, so he or she knows you wish them well. The other says it should be your name, so you have a spot in heaven saved by whoever gave you the sugar skull. I believe whichever one I feel most comfortable with at the moment.