Every October, in a place far from the U.S southern border, where the threat of early snow dictates that my kids may end up using a fur coat as a costume for Halloween (think princess in a parka people!), we partake in our yearly tradition of making calaveras or sugar skulls to celebrate the Mexican holiday of Dia De Los Muertos – Day of the Dead.
A little history…
Even though my family decorates for the two holidays at the same time, Day of the Dead and Halloween are not interchangeable. Yes, they both are at the same time of year, both use imagery of skulls, and there are lots of sweets. The close dates and similar traditions have blended the two holidays together. They stem from the same celebrations (end of season harvest, belief that the veil between the living and the dead is at its thinnest etc…) but come at the merry-making from a very different perspective.
Halloween has developed a reputation for fun trick-or-treating combined with mischief, gore and downright horror. Day of the Dead is about celebrating generations past.
Day of the Dead is a holiday that I would say is a bit more sacred and precious: families make a point to visit the graves of their family members, remembrance candles are lit, meals are eaten and stories are told.
From National Geographic Kids:
“Dia de los Muertos honors the dead with festivals and lively celebrations, a typically Latin American custom that combines indigenous Aztec ritual with Catholicism, brought to the region by Spanish conquistadores. (Dia de los Muertos is celebrated on All Saints Day and All Souls Day, minor holidays in the Catholic calendar.)”
How to make the Calavera Skulls:
The color, art and spirit behind Day of the Dead has always been both fascinating and intriguing to me. As a visiting student in Mexico, I had the chance to see two years of Dia de los Muertos celebrations. At first, I thought they were a bit spooky: I had always associated skulls with death and fear. I found that instead, they were meant as a “memento mori” – a way to remember the value of our lives, and to honor those who had come before us.
Traditionally, skulls are made with meringue and sugar and we tried this pour, mold, decorate and voila! style at our house. It was frankly a bit tedious, and with curious pets, kids and the on-and-off of our heat, it made for a big mess.
Here’s what you will need
- Paper Mache Skulls (enough for at least 1 per person)
- Paper and pencil to sketch your design. If you need inspiration, search for “Sugar Skulls” – just click here quickly and do it – and you will see a myriad of colors and styles of the skulls. They are amazing.
- Lots of newspaper or a drop cloth to cover your table
- Disposable plates or plastic paint palettes
- Water jars to clean your brushes
- Paper towels to clean brushes, wipe off paint and keep things tidy
- White acrylic paint and a large, fat and wide brush for your base coat
- Paint brushes and assorted colors of acrylic paint
- Stick-on plastic “jewels” or rhinestones if desired
- Spray polyurethane for glossy coating and preservation
We have made it a yearly tradition, building up our skills (and now our collection) to the point that we save designs and ideas year-round so the we can up-the-ante in our craft.
How to get started:
- Cover your painting surface with the drop cloth or newspapers.
- Paint your blank paper skulls with a thin base coast of white paint. This helps the colors to show up more vibrantly. Let dry – this usually takes 30-45 minutes.
- While you watch the paint dry: Sketch out a round oval shape on your paper. Draw in the two skull eyes and teeth as a model. Draw your design and work out any potential snafus. You can keep this simple, as a bold black-on-white design is traditional and can always be embellished upon later.
- When your skull is dry, use the pencil to lightly draw your design directly on to the skull. This will act as your guideline.
- Squeeze out your desired paint colors on to your palette. Begin painting in your designs with the colors of your choice. The skulls are great for painting all around- as you can hold them though the eye socket to get a good amount of detail.
- Let the paint dry. Add jewels or other stick-on embellishments.
- In a well ventilated area (let’s face this – for most of us, that is outdoors) spray your skull with the polyurethane. Let dry on newspapers.
- Sign your name and date the bottom. We love to do this so we can see the yearly progression of skill and tradition.
- Clean up: Recycle the newspapers, wash your brushes and do the right thing.
Feliz Dia De Los Muertos!
For more great Halloween and Seasonal Craft Ideas:
Share you sugar skull photos by tagging them with @kafcooks on Instagram. I would love to see your creations!