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Sugar skulls known in Spanish as calaveritas de azucar are a traditional candy used during the Day of the Dead celebrations as a funny treat given to the receiver with its name written on it.
In some areas they are used as ornaments and sweet offerings on the altars prepared to honor and welcome the souls of the dead.
Decorated with sequins, pieces of metallic paper and colored sugar paste some skulls are so beautiful and intricate they become short lived artistic manifestations of the intimate and comfortable relationship Mexicans have with death and with their dead.
There are two different ways to make sugar skulls:
During the Spanish Colony most of the desserts and candies were made by nuns and each convent specialized in a different kind which helped them earn some extra revenue. It was through the nuns that the sugar art became popular.
The oldest register of the use of alfeñique candies is from Toluca dated in 1630 and it's known that the paste was used in Guanajuato as early as 1737. The first register of the use of sugar skulls in the Day of the Dead celebrations dates from the middle of the 18th century.
Nowadays poorly decorated sugar skulls mass produced by bakeries and supermarkets are sold very cheap all around the country endangering the survival of the crafting families that made a living selling these special treats.
Besides sugar, skulls are made of amaranth seeds decorated with raisins and nuts and of chocolate usually decorated with candies.
The alfeñique figurines representing whole scenes in an altar are made in Oaxaca, Michoacan, San Luis Potosi, Hidalgo, Estado de Mexico, Guanajuato and Puebla where a bit of almonds is added to the paste and makes it taste like marzipan.
As an attempt to preserve this beautiful tradition, the Guanajuato and Estado de Mexico states have created the Alfeñique Festival, celebrated every year during the Day of the Dead celebrations helping the crafters to have an outlet and promoting their creativity by making contests.
Among the most recognized alfeñique paste artisans is Wenceslao Rivas Contreras from Toluca, Estado de Mexico.