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A Day of the Dead skeleton figurine on Alexander Henry sugar skull fabric with an Our Lady of Guadalupe candle. By M.E. Williams.

In Mexico and in Mexican-American communities around the country, it's the Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos), a festive celebration to honor lost loved ones and others who have gone before. It corresponds with All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day on the Catholic calendar: November 1 is dedicated to children's souls, while November 2 is for the spirits of adults. It is said that these souls return to Earth for a visit, but they aren't feared: they're greeted with open arms. And lots of trinkets.

When relatives are coming, you don't want them to think you're unhappy about the visit, do you? The same logic lies behind much of the celebration. People commemorate the lives of lost loved ones by creating ofrendas ("offerings": altars and shrines), making sugar skulls as presents for the dead, hanging banners made of papel picado ("pierced paper" filigree), decorating with real or paper marigolds, baking pan de muerto (the tasty "bread of the dead"), visiting family graves, and maintaining a festive atmosphere.

Who can resist taking these themes and running with them? You'll find more information and plenty of tutorials after the break!

The Day of the Dead is a celebration unique to the Mexican tradition: other Central and South American countries celebrate it to a lesser extent on one or the other of the possible days, as do people in the Philippines. Though dates vary, the concept behind it is common to many other world cultures (see Japan's O-bon and Korea's Chuseok). In most areas, it's primarily a day or two for visiting your hometown and maintaining family graves, maybe with a cemetery picnic or special dinner.

But in Mexico and ethnically Mexican communities, the festivities go far beyond that. Similar celebrations, with many of the same trappings, have been observed for several thousand years by indigenous Mexican groups. Even after mass conversion to Catholicism in the sixteenth century and priestly disapproval, many Mexicans were not interested in abandoning the holiday, so the eventual compromise was that it was moved to coincide with All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day.

The cheerfully macabre style associated with the Day of the Dead celebration has caught on far outside of the Mexican community, and as a result, a lot of its common motifs have become popular with crafters who didn't grow up observing the holiday.

Whether or not this becomes an excuse to essentially let Halloween go on in one way or another for three days straight is up to your interpretation. It's not exactly culturally accurate (what the holidays have in common is essentially A) the concept of supernatural elements visiting the earth and B) skeletons being cool), but it sure is fun!

Sugar skulls

Sugar skulls (calaveras) are probably the item most closely associated with Dia de los Muertos by the world at large. Originally, they were often artisan-made and purchased by the consumer, with each one labeled to represent a specific person, because they were intended as a gift for that person's visiting spirit. Nowadays, they're often made and embellished at home, and used as a general decoration or offering, not always representing anyone in particular. A sugar mixture is packed into purchased skull molds and allowed to dry, then unmolded and decorated, usually with piped icing in bright colors. They are sometimes eaten, but you stand a pretty good chance of cracking a tooth if you try it: it's better to use them as decoration.

If you want to make sugar skulls of your own, the first thing you'll need is a mold or two. Mexican Sugar Skull sells a variety of molds (as well as completed versions of many of the other activities mentioned here; it's a good site to look around to get a general idea of the items used in the festivities).

Several recipes for sugar skulls exist, but all involve getting sugar, usually powdered sugar, to clump, often with the assistance of raw egg or a meringue mixture. They can take some trial and error. If your first sugar skulls crack, try again: you may have unmolded them too soon, or too late, or not packed them in tightly enough, or fallen prey to any of a number of other small issues like your molds needing to be cleaned. The following recipes have suggestions for success:

  • Since they sell the molds, of course Mexican Sugar Skull has a recipe and tutorial page. They also sell the meringue powder that they recommend using in the mixture, decorating supplies, and completed blank skulls, and have a chocolate skull recipe page.
  • Gourmet Sleuth has a similar sugar skull recipe with a very clear photo tutorial. They also sell complete kits for the project. There are plenty of helpful tips at this site... for example, you can't take your skull out of the mold too soon, but it's even worse to wait too long!
  • Inside Mexico has an interview with a veteran worker in Alfeñique, the name of the material used to produce sugar figures, as well as an eggless (vegan?) sugar skull recipe.
  • This resource page from PBS Kids' Maya and Miguel has a kid-friendly sugar skull recipe that doesn't use molds... well, about as kid-friendly as any recipe involving raw eggs can possibly be.
  • Sugar skulls at These Foolish Things is the latest popular article on this topic. The writer recommends the sugar skull recipes that use meringue powder. There are plenty of tips on how to decorate your skulls: hot glue works well for sticking the two halves together if you don't have royal icing, some store-bought icings are too wet and will melt the skulls, some glitter glues "sink in" on the surface of the skulls, and so on.
  • About.com's Mexican Food topic has a sugar skulls tutorial with lots of helpful tips. They also have a gallery of great sugar skull photos.

Sugar skull molds aren't always used for sugar. They can also be used to mold melted chocolate, bath bombs, clay, and plaster, maybe even rice for your lunch box. Plaster or clay would make a permanent skull that could be coated with sealant and decorated with paint, or have a tinted thick acrylic paste medium piped onto it, just as the real thing is decorated with piped icing.

If you use any of the non-food ideas, you'll need to have separate molds for your edibles, and label the clay molds as "not to be used for food" -- in perpetuity.

Pan de Muertos

One of the other foods associated with the holiday is Pan de Muerto/Muertos ("bread of the dead"), which has an anise-citrus flavor and is often made in the shape of skulls, or of round loaves decorated with bone-shaped cutouts of dough.

Calacas - skeleton figurines

"Crafty Chica" Kathy Cano-Murillo (see below) says that the idea behind these skeleton figurines is, "The body may be gone but the personality remains." That's why calacas are depicted doing anything you might have done in life: dancing, playing musical instruments, getting married, waiting tables, examining patients, sewing, watching TV, arguing a case in court, and so on. If your late cousin was an enthusiastic golfer, you might get a golfing figure to represent him. The figures may be used in ofrendas, but nowadays, many people also like to use them as kitschy knick-knacks around the house.

There are several well-known calacas: Catrina is a skeleton woman in fancy early-twentieth-century dress, with a big hat. She's based on a popular 1913 illustration by Jose Guadalupe Posada. Novios are "sweethearts," so the term often refers to bride-and-groom sets of calacas. Most skeleton figurines seem to be made of clay over a wire armature; however, there are larger papier-mache and wood models, too.

You could try molding your own skeleton figurine out of polymer clay, paper clay, or Crayola's Model Magic, then painting it as you like: use this page for ideas. (Karen's Whimsy, discussed below in the "Other Crafts" section, also has ideas for making calacas with polymer clay.) But if you're not up for that, try downloading this funny paper skull puppet for kids.

(Note: the term "calacas" is colloquial and can also be used to refer to many of the other skull or skeleton items associated with Dia de los Muertos, including sugar skulls! Calavera means skull, but aside from referring to sugar skulls, calaveras are also short, comedic "epitaph" verses written for friends and family during this holiday season. It seems like the two words are sometimes used interchangeably.)

Papel picado

Papel picado is an indigenous art form that was revolutionized with the introduction of tissue paper to Mexico in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century; prior to that, it was done on amate, a thicker bark paper similar to today's mulberry paper. Skilled artisans create a design in silhouette with the use of a special chisel. The main motif has to be connected to the outer edge of the paper with a lacy pattern. Many of the Day of the Dead designs feature skeletons.

You can make your own papel picado with careful use of a craft knife (for more complex designs) or just scissors (for easier designs, made with a method similar to that used to create paper snowflakes). Use whichever paper is most comfortable to you: mulberry paper, for example, is much more durable than tissue.

If you purchase papel picado, you can hang it like a banner, or you can use it as a part of other craft projects: framed, laminated, glued down, and so on.

Marigolds

Marigolds have been a part of Day of the Dead celebrations since the holiday's early origins. Aside from being a pretty flower that grows in the area, they have a distinct scent that is said to help the spirits of the dead find their way home. (Copal, a tree resin incense that smells similar to pine, is used in the same way.)

Fresh marigolds aren't always easy to find in good condition or at an affordable price, so many people decorate ofrendas with handmade paper flowers. The process for making paper flowers involves folding and twisting tissue or crepe paper, wrapping it with wire or pipe-cleaner stems, then fluffing out the flower's petals.

Several paper flower tutorials are available at:

Ofrendas and nichos

An ofrenda is an "offering": that is, a shrine or altar set out specifically to celebrate the life of a deceased loved one, and, if their spirit visits, to lure it to the right place. It should include several generally symbolic items, as well as items more specific to the person in question. In Mexico, schools and offices will often create ofrendas without any specific religious overtones, but home altars are likely to have Catholic elements.

According to the Dia de Muertos blog, common ofrenda elements are:

  • Something agricultural, to represent the earth and to nourish the souls of the dead as they visit. Food is a good choice.
  • Something that captures the wind, to represent air. Papel picado banners usually fulfill this requirement.
  • Water, to quench thirsty souls.
  • Candles, to represent fire and people who are still living; also, to remember lonely souls who have no one else to care for them.
  • Grooming items, so the dead can clean up after their long trip home from the afterlife: combs, soap, fragrance, and so on.
  • Photographs or paintings of the deceased.
  • Marigolds and copal incense, because of their distinctive scents.
  • Calaveras in various forms (sugar skulls, skeleton figurines, etc).

Nichos are small shrines (like a statue of a saint in a niche in the wall). You can use several, dedicated to saints or to people, in your ofrenda.

Ehow has several articles related to Day of the Dead ofrendas and nichos. How to Build a Day of the Dead Shrine is largely about ofrendas, and includes the basic elements. The author mentions that it's acceptable to use just a photo of the person being honored, surrounded with candles and flowers, if you can't build a full shrine. You can put as many photos of different people as you wish on your basic shrine.

How to Make a Shrine for Day of the Dead stresses the importance of using items that were favorites of the deceased: clothing, belongings, or things like cigarettes, cards, and items that have to do with their best-loved activities.

How to Decorate for Day of the Dead has similar information, but expands it through the entire house and a visit to the cemetery. How to Make Religious Nichos has some ideas for nichos that you can make as part of your ofrendas.

Make Your Own Altar at 1-2-3 Holiday has even more detailed information, though it contradicts some information that I've read elsewhere. It doesn't seem that the rules listed here, such as the number and placement of candy skulls, are rigid ones.

AZ Central has photos: a traditional altar and a contemporary altar.

If all of this seems too complicated for you, try this tutorial from DIY Network: during one of Kathy Cano-Murillo's appearances on Craft Lab, they made a nicho-type cigar-box shrine. And speaking of Kathy....

Crafty Chica: Kathy Cano-Murillo

America's best-known craft designer working with Mexican motifs is probably Kathy Cano-Murillo, who is also known as the Crafty Chica. She has several books available with more projects for your Day of the Dead celebration:

Crafty Chica's Art de la Soul is the most recent of her books, and probably the best. It combines projects with personal reminiscences, cool illustrations by Kathy's husband Patrick Murillo, and lots of ideas for ways to incorporate more creativity into your life. The instructions are written in a style that's easy to understand. With regard to Day of the Dead, the book contains plenty of explanation of the holiday, as well as several appropriate projects: white chocolate "sugar skulls," cheerful skull banners made with brightly-colored fabric and bleach pens, and a small ofrenda.

This book is worth having even if you aren't into Mexican style: the only inherently "Mexican" thing about many of the projects is how the materials are themed, so with a different choice of imagery and colors you can give the finished results a "French" look or a "Nigerian" look or whatever else you might want.

The Crafty Chica Collection is a combined edition of two of Kathy's previous books, Making Shadow Boxes and Shrines and La Casa Loca. Honestly, it isn't quite as good as Art de la Soul: not all of the projects are great, and some of the instructions really needed illustrations (which they lack) to be comprehensible. But there's still plenty of inspiration there, the majority of the projects are do-able, and if you love Kathy's style, you'll want to check it out. The shrine book addresses various themes (you'll see an Asian Heritage shrine and an Anglophilia shrine); in La Casa Loca, there are instructions for things like a paper flower topiary and a papier-mache Day of the Dead skull.

Kathy has also written a number of online tutorials for crafts related to Day of the Dead, including those from AZ Central linked throughout this article. Two that didn't fit anywhere else are the tutorial on Reverse Glass Painting (a picture of a skull painted on a frame's glass panel, then viewed from the other side -- not so easy if you don't have a template to work from, though there is a video), and the Day of the Dead Pin tutorial, made easily with polymer clay, paint, tissue paper, a charm, and a few other supplies.

Also, check out the Day of the Dead category on Kathy's blog, where she has recently written about shrines and sugar/plaster skulls, and explains the appropriate mood very well.

Other Mexican imagery

Several other images associated with Mexican culture have crept into the American understanding of Day of the Dead, although they are not particular to the holiday. They are Our Lady of Guadalupe and Loteria cards. If any of these images make it into your ofrenda, most people probably won't look askance.

Our Lady of Guadalupe refers to a miraculous sighting of the Virgin Mary by one of the country's early Catholic converts, and shows her standing in a lozenge shape with a sunburst behind her. She's the icon of Mexican Catholicism and is often used as a nationalist image.

Loteria cards are often confused with Tarot cards because of their imagery (The Boot, The Rose, The Moon, The Crown, etc), but the game played with them is more like Bingo. They are colorful and usually small, and can often be purchased from retailers who also sell things related to either calacas and calaveras, or ephemera to use in craft projects:

  1. Enlarge the card of your choice on a photocopier until it's the size you want.
  2. Color the reverse side of the enlargement with a regular soft-lead pencil. You don't need to be neat: your goal here is to get the pencil to act like carbon paper.
  3. Base-coat your box however you like (but not in a dark color!), then allow the paint to dry.
  4. Put the enlargement copied-side-up on top of the box and position the drawing where you want it.
  5. Use a sharp pencil or pen to draw over the lines on the enlargement, which should transfer the design on the card to the lid of the box.
  6. Now that you have guidelines for the art, use them to paint the card's design onto the box! The brushes and paint you use are up to you, but of course, use a fine brush for detail work and outlines. Use the card itself as a reference for colors.
  7. If this sounds too complicated, use acrylic gel medium to cover the surface of a box with Loteria cards, or use a color photocopier to enlarge a card until it's the size of the lid of your box, then glue it on with the acrylic medium. You'll get a similar effect without all of the drawing and painting.
  8. If you glue down a photocopy, don't sell the result. You can sell crafts made with purchased (not copied) Loteria cards, though.

Alexander Henry Fabrics

Alexander Henry Fabrics puts interesting prints onto good-quality 100% cotton material. They have a full Mexican-themed line, Folklorico, that has at least five different Day of the Dead prints. Some of the fabrics have metallic or glitter prints that aren't scratchy and don't rub off quickly. I have seen these materials used in a lot of applications: home decor, clothing, scrapbooking, and so on (in fact, one of them is the backdrop for the photo at the beginning of this article).

Alexander Henry doesn't sell fabric to the public from their website, and some of the prints can be extremely difficult to find, but they will try to connect you with a retailer who has what you're looking for. Many quilting shops carry at least part of the line. A few online retailers who carry Alexander Henry merchandise are:

Other Day of the Dead-themed crafts

Karen's Whimsy has instructions for an altered book with a Day of the Dead theme. (Perhaps it could be called an "altared" book? The style is similar to that of a nicho.) Its base is a board book, of the kind made for small children, and it uses most of the motifs I've discussed above: a skeleton figurine made of polymer clay, paper or silk flowers, polymer clay "sugar skulls" decorated with glitter, papel picado banners in miniature, and Our Lady of Guadalupe.

If needlework is more your style, a few companies and individual designers make needlework patterns and kits with Day of the Dead motifs, mostly sugar skulls and skeleton figures.

This Atencion San Miguel article is a Dia de los Muertos shopping guide which can be used for craft ideas. Milagros Gallery has other Day of the Dead products (like papel picado-type banners made from cut plastic, a chain of skull beads, and an Elvis nicho) that might also be a good source for ideas. There are more figures and nichos at Fausto's Art Gallery.

Craftster users did a Day of the Dead craft swap (gallery link) a few years ago, with what seems like a heavy emphasis on nichos. Don't miss this one.

Day of the Dead on Etsy

There's always a lot of Day of the Dead merchandise floating around on Etsy.com, but it's not usually practical to link to it, because items sell quickly and links expire. A search on "day of the dead" will net you many hits -- over 1500, at this writing. Check out the following (sourced on 11/1/2007):

Mas?

If you still want more, check out the following sites, which have good general overviews of the holiday.

AZ Central has a full feature on Day of the Dead, including articles on its history and development, as well as articles about how to set up an ofrenda, where to find some of the items you'll need, projects, recipes, free online postcards, flash cards, and much more.

Kirsten Arenberg's Day of the Dead site isn't as extensive, but is still worth a visit.

Mexican Food at About.com has a wonderful article on Day of the Dead history with links to even more recipes.

Ehow has a recipe for Dulces de Calabasas, a candied spiced pumpkin treat often placed on Day of the Dead altars. The site also has many more Day of the Dead articles than I've linked here.

El Payaso, the site of artist David Rosales, has some great photos and brief explanations of the traditions I've discussed here. Visit for even more details.




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