Alfeñique: Sugar Art Celebrating the Day of the Dead

Instructor: Maura Valentino

Maura has taught college information literacy and has a master's degree in library and information science.

Learn about beautiful works of folk art made of sugar, and discover the important role sugar art plays in Day of the Dead celebrations held throughout Mexico and the rest of the world.

The Return of the Dead

The clock strikes midnight and the dead are released from Heaven to seek their relatives in the living world. Their families have been preparing for their return for many months. The Day of the Dead has come, but there is no need to be afraid.

Unlike the spirits that haunt Halloween, these ghosts don't come to terrify the living. In fact, a great celebration has begun, and throughout Mexico beautiful skulls made of sugar decorate altars that honor the returning dead.

A Holiday for the Dead and the Living

The Day of the Dead (Día de los Muertos) occurs on November 1st and 2nd. It is one of the most important holidays in Mexico, and it is now celebrated throughout the world.

A Day of the Dead celebration in San Francisco
Day of the Dead celebration

The holiday traces its roots to the indigenous people of central and southern Mexico. They held festivals to honor the dead during which they believed the dead returned to the living world.

When the Spanish arrived in the 1500s, they attempted to eradicate such ideas and replace them with Catholic theology and European traditions. However, the indigenous people refused to give up their beliefs, and the Day of the Dead was transformed into a blend of both traditions.

Today, people spend much of the year preparing for the holiday. They create elaborate altars, called ofrenda (offering in Spanish), and they craft works of art made of sugar to honor the dead.

Example of an ofrenda
Example of an ofrenda

A wide variety of festivals, markets, and celebrations are held, and people gather in cemeteries to clean and decorate graves. They believe doing so honors the dead, and they hope that in return the dead watch over them and bring them good fortune.

Day of the Dead celebration in a cemetery
Cemetary celebration Day of the Day

A grave decorated for the Day of the Dead
Grave decorated for Day of the Dead

Sugar Art and the Day of the Dead

Sculptures made of sugar (azúcar) are an important part of Day of the Dead celebrations. Called sugar art, or alfeñique, these creations often take the form of colorfully decorated skulls (calaveras de azúcar), but skeletons, coffins, crosses and animals are also popular.

Sugar skulls prepared for the Day of the Dead
Image of sugar skulls

While the use of skulls (calaveras) may seem unusual, the skull has long been an important symbol in Mexican art and culture. Skulls often represent respected and beloved ancestors, and do not have many of the negative associations found in other cultures.

Example of skulls and skeletons in Mexican art
Mexican skull art

The technique of making sculptures from sugar came to Mexico with the Spanish. Sugar art soon became a key part of Day of the Dead celebrations.

Sugar art is often made by pouring liquid sugar into a clay mold. Some molds are passed down from generation to generation. The sculptures are decorated with colored icing, metallic paper, feathers, beads, glitter, fabric, and a wide variety of other materials. Sugar art is also made from alfeñique, a sugar paste that can be shaped like clay and tinted different colors. Detailed works of art can be created from alfeñique.

While some sugar art is sold as candy during the holiday, sugar art is not usually consumed. Instead, sugar art is placed on graves and ofrenda. Often, sugar skulls bear the name of a deceased loved one. Small skulls are set out on November 1st to greet the spirits of departed children, and larger skulls greet adult spirits the next day.

The Day of the Dead is a happy, joyous celebration, and as a result sugar art features bright colors and smiling skulls. Sugar art skeletons and coffins are made as toys to be enjoyed by children attending the festivities and by the spirits of the dead. If kept dry, sugar art is durable, and can be kept in the home year round.

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