What Are Sugar Skulls? Learn All About the Day of the Dead Tradition

Plus, learn how to make your own.

<p>Marie Hickman/Getty Images</p>

Marie Hickman/Getty Images

Fact checked by Haley Mades

As the spooky season creeps upon us, you’re likely inundated with all sorts of macabre and witchy decor. However, not all symbols of the Halloween season are morbid, nor are they scary in any way. Sugar skulls, a Mexican tradition, can be seen in Mexican households and spaces across the world, and they’re far more than a skeleton-shaped candy. But what are sugar skulls? Seen in countless colors, sizes, and styles, these items are now ubiquitous, but carry a deeper meaning. If you didn’t grow up around sugar skulls, here’s what you need to know to appreciate the annual tradition:

What Are Sugar Skulls?

Sugar skulls, also called calaveritas de azúcar (or calaveritas, for short), are literally skulls made from sugar. They’re found in Mexico and Mexican households for the Day of the Dead, or Día de los Muertos tradition, which takes place annually on the evening of November 1 through the next day. 

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Sugarcane isn’t indigenous to Mexico, but rather a product of colonialism. The concept for sugar skulls, in fact, originated in Palermo, Italy, where sugary confections were created to celebrate holidays. The tradition migrated to Spain, and when the Spanish conquered Mexico, the tradition became a part of Mexican culture and folklore as well. Skulls, or calaveras, made from clay or other materials, were often popular symbols in celebrating the Day of the Dead, and sugar skulls became prominent over a century ago.

What Is the Meaning of Sugar Skulls?

“During Dia de los Muertos, we build ofrendas, altars made to remember our loved ones who have passed away,” says chef Fernanda Serrano of elNico at The Penny Williamsburg. “We decorate these altars with flowers, colorful papel picado, pictures, and food or drinks as a way to celebrate their lives.” On these colorful and lively ofrendas, found in homes and public spaces, sugar skulls are often included. 

“Among the decorations, it's common to find calaveritas—sugar skulls—that are decorated with colorful icing sugar, and, in some cases, beads,” says Serrano. “Calaveritas always have a piece of paper featuring the deceased person's name attached to the forehead, to represent the person being remembered.”

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Are Sugar Skulls Meant to Be Eaten?

Like anything made out of sugar, sugar skulls can be enticing, but are primarily decorative. “Calaveritas are made for decoration, but can be eaten, as they’re made from a sugar cane mixture,” says Serrano. “The decorations are made of icing and food coloring.” 

Of course, if you make or buy sugar skulls yourself, you can eat them, but Serrano notes that some may have beads or other adornments, which would make them not edible. Sugar skulls placed on an ofrenda aren’t an all-you-can-eat candy display, but a traditional object that would be disrespectful to remove from the altar and eat.

How Are Sugar Skulls Made?

Sugar skulls are made from a simple mixture of sugar and water, blended into a paste that dries in a skull-shape mold. Icing made from sugar and water, plus food coloring, can also be easily made to decorate the sugar skulls. “Nowadays, people might add meringue powder to the sugar mix to make it more stable,” Serrano advises.

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Here’s now to make sugar skulls, thanks to Serrano’s recipe:

Sugar skull ingredients:

  • 1 cup of white sugar

  • 1 teaspoon of meringue powder

  • 1 teaspoon of water

  • Skull-shape molds


  1. Mix all of the ingredients in a bowl and work the mixture until incorporated. The mixture should feel like beach sand, and should stay together when you press it.

  2. Fill the molds with the sugar mixture, pressing each time to make sure the whole mold is filled. Once the mold is full, scrape the bottom part with a knife to make it smooth.

  3. Remove the sugar skull from the mold, and let it dry.

Decoration ingredients:

  • 2/3 cup of water

  • ½ cup of meringue powder

  • 2 pounds of powdered sugar

  • Food coloring of your choice

  • Piping bags


  1. Mix all of the ingredients with an electric mixer together until all of the sugar is incorporated, there’s no lumps, and the icing peaks.

  2. Divide the icing in different containers, depending on how many colors you would like to use. Start coloring the icing, and mix well.

  3. Place icing in different piping bags.

  4. Once the sugar skulls are dry, start decorating them with the colored icing.

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