Sugar Skulls and Belmont University
If you’ve visited Cheekwood’s El Día de los Muertos, you’ve undoubtedly seen people carrying around small sugar skulls, and possibly even decorated a few yourself. Sugar skulls, or calaveras de azúcar, are an easily recognizable symbol of the Day of the Dead, and at Cheekwood, there are two stories behind the small items.
The skull has a long tradition in Mesoamerican societies and cultures. While the earliest customs and rituals were lost after the Spanish conquistadors overthrew the Aztec empire in the 1500s, the skull remained central to the celebrations that evolved into the modern Day of the Dead. As an important symbol on any ofrenda, or altar, sugar skulls may have a tiny slip of paper featuring a person’s name on the forehead. It may be the person creating the skull, the one receiving it, or the person being remembered. The skulls are used both as an offering for the departed on an altar and as a sign of affection, with a gentle reminder of mortality, to the living when given as a gift. By sculpting a skull, so closely tied to death, out of sugar, sugar skulls symbolize the bittersweet celebration of remembering those we have lost.
When Cheekwood began celebrating El Día de los Muertos in 2000, a member of the first Advisory Committee was Dr. David Julseth, a Spanish Professor at Belmont University. Professor Julseth, who has always been passionate about involving his students in the Hispanic community through service learning, saw the sugar skulls as a way for students to get hands-on involvement in the growing celebration. Over the years, the tradition has continued and Cheekwood’s El Día de los Muertos wouldn’t be the same without his students. Professor Julseth has his students spend one day, typically the week before the festival, at Cheekwood, where they make hundreds of sugar skulls. Students are given the recipe, the ingredients, the molds, and then they get to work. In 2019, his students made over 1,300 sugar skulls!
Cheekwood is grateful for the support of Professor Julseth, his students, and the rest of the El Dia advisory committee for their hard work in creating such a vibrant celebration each year. Join us online this year and then we hope to welcome everyone back in 2021 with plenty of sugar skulls!
Interested in making your own sugar skulls? Take a look at our step-by-step instructions below!
Make Your Own Sugar Skull
Here’s what you’ll need:
• Meringue powder
• Mixing bowl
• Mixing spoon
• Measuring utensils
• Sugar Skull molds
• Butter knife
• Cardboard cut to the size of sugar skull mold trays
• Colored icing and tips
1. In a mixing bowl, add in your sugar, meringue power and water. For every 1 cup of sugar, add 1 teaspoon of meringue powder and 1 teaspoon of water.
2. Using your hands, combine the ingredients until the mixture holds together when squeezed in your hand. This process will take a few minutes. It should be the consistency of wet sand. If needed you can add a little bit more water, but make sure to mix well and test by squeezing before adding more.
3. Fill up the sugar skull molds by packing the sugar mixture into the individual molds. Use the back of a spoon or your fingertips to pack it tightly. Use a knife to scrape off the excess sugar and then press again with your fingers to smooth the surface.
4. Once all molds are filled, place a piece of cardboard on the back of the sugar skulls. Holding the molds and cardboard together tightly, gently flip it over and place on a table. Lightly tap around the skulls until they release from the mold onto the cardboard. Carefully lift molds away from the sugar skulls.
5. Leave the sugar skulls where they are and set aside to dry for several hours to overnight. They will become solid and easy able to move once dried completely.
6. Once dry, use colorful icing and various icing tips to decorate your sugar skulls. Set aside to dry for a few hours before using as decoration.