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Day of the Dead and the Sugar Skull


Chris Jackson/Getty Images

Have you heard of the Day of the Dead? Also known as Dia de los Muertos, it’s a holiday when families celebrate and remember friends and family who have passed away.

This tradition originated in Mexico and is celebrated at the beginning of November.

How is it celebrated?

Day of the Dead altar

Photo by Andrew Storms licensed CC BY-SA 2.0

In the days before the holiday, families create beautiful altars, called ofrendas, in their homes.

To remember the loved ones who aren’t here anymore, family members take time to add pictures of them. They also leave gifts of flowers, candles and their favourite foods and drinks from when they were alive.

Where is it celebrated?

Aztec dancer in Day of the Dead parade

Photo by The Travel Gal’s Exploration Vacation licensed CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Day of the Dead started in Mexico, but is also celebrated in many Mexican communities in North America. This year with social distancing to keep in mind, it will probably be celebrated very differently. Let's look at some of the traditional ways it's been celebrated:

  • In Oakland, California, they have had a festival every year with traditional Aztec dancers, Mexican music and crafts.
  • Missoula, Montana, has had a parade with people dressed as skeletons on stilts.
  • And Boston, Massachusetts, has had their yearly festival in Forest Hill Cemetery celebrating life and death with music and dance.

What is a sugar skull?

Sugar skull

Photo by Angélica Portales licensed CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

One of the most iconic and colourful items you’ll see during Day of the Dead festivities is the sugar skull, or calavera.

These skulls can come in all sorts of sizes. They’re made of sugar and decorated with icing to be fun and colourful. And they taste like candy!

Some even have things like feathers, glitter and hats attached to personalize them.

Are sugar skulls scary?

Sugar skull face painting

Photo by mbtrama licensed CC BY 2.0

Unlike the skulls you see at Halloween, sugar skulls aren’t scary. They’re happy, colourful and smiling.

These skulls are meant to show the joy and happy memories you remember when you think of a lost loved one.

People will also paint their faces to look like a sugar skull to celebrate the holiday.

Are the sugar skull designs special?

Very creative sugar skull for competition

Photo by Juan Carlos licensed CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Sugar skull designs can be creative and extravagant. Skilled artists even have design competitions!

Every year, the Mexican city of Toluca hosts a Day of the Dead festival. Hundreds of artists bring handmade decorated sugar skulls to try and win a prize for best skull candy.

Make your own sugar skull mask

Download and print out our PDF template and you can colour in and make your own sugar skull mask just like the ones pictured below.

Sugar skull make & do