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Day of the Dead ~ Frequently Asked Questions

Expert answers

Browse through the questions about Sugar Skulls, Day of the Dead, Mexican folk art, Mexican oilcloth, and Papel Picado cut paper banners, or select a question from the drop down menu below.

3 decorated sugar skulls
Sugar Skulls

Can you eat sugar skulls?

Yes and no. Our sugar skull recipe uses only wholesome ingredients: granulated & powdered sugar, meringue powder (which is dried egg whites, starch and vanilla), food coloring and water. Nothing inedible or unhealthy with any of this. However, eating a big hunk of granulated sugar and Royal Icing is not a tasty, pleasant experience! Sugar skulls are more a folk art. We do not recommend eating the sugar skulls because most sugar skull makers use sequins, colored tin foil, feathers, beads and glitter that is used which are NOT edible ingredients. If you are a teacher, know that most school rules prohibit letting students eat anything that is not packaged and from a "food approved kitchen". Teachers can use sugar skulls to explain that all that is sugar is not to be eaten! Sugar skulls are ephemeral folk art and not candy.

The traditional sugar skulls that we import from Mexico are NOT to be eaten. They are imported as folk art and NOT candy. They too have inedible tin foils and adornments. They are not made in food approved kitchens or packaged as food, so they are NOT to be eaten.

Where are your sugar skull molds made? created the Original Sugar Skull Moldsmore than a decade ago. All of the sugar skull molds that we designed and manufacture are made in California!

We use high quality, food grade 20 mil plastic for most molds and 25 mil thicker plastic for the larger 2 piece molds. They are durable and dishwasher safe if you don't run it through a hot drying cycle. They last for years! They are intended for sugar skull mix and melted chocolate but the plastic will melt if used for hot, hard candy syrup. We do carry one lollipop skull mold (C4551) that can withstand the super hot, hard candy mix.

I'm having difficulty finding meringue powder at my grocery store. Do I need it?

Good meringue powder is very difficult to find - that's why we sell three sizes of it on our website at a very good price. We offer a bulk rate price on the one pound bag which will help teachers afford sugar skulls in the classroom..

Meringue powder is a necessary ingredient which makes the the granulated sugar harden in the form of the sugar skull. It also hardens the colored Royal Icing. It's perfectly safe to eat, but hard sugar just isn't very tasty!

Craft shop meringue powder has been diluted (and "cut") with fillers so that they make higher profit. There is not enough of the expensive dried egg in it to hold the heavy granules of sugar together to cast a sugar skull. Many times, skulls come out sandy, like dried beach sand on your shoes. Craft shop brands of meringue powder is fine for making cupcake icing but not for sugar skull making.

Generally, meringue powder is sold in bulk to pie shops as a short cut to making lemon meringue pies. Gingerbread House makers use meringue powder to make a cement icing to hold their houses together. After much testing, we recommend and sell CK Products Meringue Powder as it is very strong and one can count on it to create a good quality sugar skull.

What's so special about your paste colors? Can't we just use the icing tubes from the grocery store?

The icing is the most important part of the sugar skull project. A sugar skull, made according to directions with our meringue powder will last for about five years. The food colors that we sell are excellent quality, intensely deep & rich in the Mexican tradition and hardly fade compared to other food colors. We only charge $2.25 per jar, so they are a real bargain. You only need to choose five to six of your favorite colors to have a beautiful sugar skull palette! The food coloring can be used throughout the year for Christmas cookies, cake frosting and other culinary uses.

After several years of testing many brands of food coloring, I found that these work the best. It's expensive to make a good quality food color as the dyes are very expensive - especially for reds and purples. Craft shop paste food colors use very little of the expensive dye that gives the deep and rich colors that are characteristically Mexican! They are just fine for making pastel roses for cakes that are going to be eaten a few days later, but inadequate for the sugar skull maker that may spend a lot of time to make a beautiful skull who wishes to keep it for several years. It's not that you can't use the other paste food colors, but you wouldn't want to. The day I found a company that made a deep lime green (chartreuse) food color (I believe the only one in the US), I did cartwheels in the living room. Our purple, black and royal red are spectacular but one has to use about 2/3 a jar to achieve the deep color. All other colors, you need about 1/2 teaspoon per cup of icing. "Pump it up" and keep adding minimal amounts of paste color until you get the rich Mexican colors. Sugar skulls should not be pastel !

Now, back to the question. The grocery store mini tubes of icing do not set up. They make a mess and are not recommended for the sugar skulls. They are water based and that eats into a sugar skull. OK for cupcakes that you're going to eat in a short while, but not for sugar skulls. Frankly, there is no shortcut to making the royal icing. It's a pain in the ass to make, but really worth it. The disposable icing bags we sell really are helpful in decorating. They need no tips or couplers... they are tied off so even the messiest of kids are kept clean... and since you've gone to this much effort, don't forget the colored tin foil!

What is the difference between a traditional Mexican sugar skull from Mexico and the sugar skulls that come from the molds?

Mexican sugar skulls are folk art nirvana!They are a disappearing ephemeral folk art that are made by master candy makers who learned the technique from their grandparents. Mexican sombrero sugar skullsSkulls are made with boiled sugar that is poured into moist clay break away molds. They are always hollow. Sounds easy? One year after filming a sugar skull making family in Oaxaca, I pranced home with some sixty year old molds (a rare find as sugar skull makers hide their mold sources and frequently travel to other states to have famous mold makers with special combinations of exotic clay, make their molds) and set up my sugar pots and stove and started melting & stirring sugar in big pots in what I thought would be an easy day of sugar skull making.

Three weeks and thirty-two attempts later, I still did not stumble upon the correct way to reduce the temperature of the sugar to give the beautiful opaque & translucent bone color of the Mexican skulls. A real Mexican sugar skull is made the same way they were made in the 17th century - in small batches, with care and patience. It is an important job to make the sugar skulls that represent the souls of the departed... that will sit vigilant on beautiful home ofrendas, with the names of the returning spirits written in icing across the foreheads. Sugar skull makers frequently will work for four to six months to accumulate enough sugar skulls for the season where they will set up a temporary stall in the outdoor market the two weeks before Day of the Dead.

Now, back to the question. I love real sugar skulls and tried for years to bring back enough to sell at my gallery. They are fragile and expensive to ship. So, I got this crazy idea to create my own line of sugar skull molds using a modified panoramic Easter egg recipe. As fortune had it, I met Carolyn Potter at the local meeting of the California Gourd Society and found out she was a famous fimo and sculpture artist... AND she loved Day of the Dead. It didn't take much arm twisting to get her to to turn my designs into the most perfect of sugar skull molds. The attention to detail is spectacular (note the Chantilly lace on the Novio Bar and the ostrich feathers on the Catrina mold). The last mold she made, the sombrero hat packs were her most ingenious! Real sugar skulls with sombreros (cardinals, cowboys, campesinos, policemen etc) are scarce as they are elaborate designs which disappeared from most markets in the 1970's. Let's just say a sugar skull with a hat is a great idea and Carolyn created an ingenious design to use one piece of molded sugar as either a campesino straw sombrero, or turn it over and it becomes a classic catrina hat for a female sugar skull.

The skulls that are made from my recipe & molds are fast and easy to make. The meringue powder eliminates the need to boil the sugar. Even second graders can help mix the sugar mix and cast a skull. Since skulls are turned out to air dry on cardboard squares, it's easy to make a ten pound bag of sugar in about an hour with one or two molds. That's 40 Original medium skulls! If you decorate your sugar skulls with the classic colored tin foil and put a name on the forehead with black icing, it will look very much like the authentic Mexican sugar skulls and last approximately 5 years. These are not exactly true Mexican sugar skulls but they are intended to be a respectful copy to be enjoyed by those of us who appreciate the art of the sugar skull masters of Mexico.

Dia de los Muertos papel picado paper banner (purple) Day of the Dead

What is the difference between Halloween and Day of the Dead?

Halloween and Day of the Dead are frequently confused since Day of the Dead is the day after Halloween. Baby's spirits return to their parent's home on November 1 and the spirits of dead adults return home November 2. Cemetery celebrations occur during these days too depending on the traditions of the town or village. Day of the Dead is a synchronistic blend of pre-Conquest pagan rituals and the Catholic celebrations called All Souls and All Saint's Day. Although it's roots are Catholic, it has become a cultural event more than a religious holiday. The Mexican official national holiday is taken November 2.

What is important to remember is that Day of the Dead is a beautiful, spiritual family holiday to honor the memory of dead relatives. It's not really the memory of their death but spending time thinking about and feeling the essence of their life. It's a bonding time and respectful time that brings generations together within a family and the entire community. Continuance of these ancient traditions, getting everyone's sleeves rolled up to work on food preparation, tomb cleaning and building an elaborate ofrenda in the living room brings solace to older folks that might otherwise fear that they will be forgotten after their death. And for those of the religious persuasion, this is a very sacred encounter with dear missed spirits that have been released from heaven for a day, allowed to return to enjoy the visits, offerings and foods of their family. Read more about Day of the Dead history.

Halloween is a holiday with origins in the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain. It was celebrated 2000 years ago at the end of the harvest, before the beginning of the cold, dark winter, both to give thanks to the spirits for a fruitful harvest as well as to scare the spirits of the dead from causing sickness, plague and crop damage. Masks and carved turnips with scary faces were used to scare these naughty spirits away from their villages. Animal heads and skins were worn as costumes. Huge bonfires were made to burn animals as sacrificial offerings to the Celtic gods. The progression and history of this holiday is interesting and complex but we all know it turned into the commercial Hallmark holiday we all enjoy with trick-o-treating, costumes, carving pumpkins and bobbing for apples. The holidays are different in their origins, beliefs and how they are celebrated. Search Google for more info on Halloween.

My daughter's elementary school is celebrating Day of the Dead this year. Should I be worried that this is not age appropriate?

Hundreds of schools celebrate Day of the Dead around the country starting at kindergarten. Teachers use the opportunity to teach the "Cycle of Life", family ancestry and allow little ones to express their feelings about death. It is usually done as a multi-cultural unit explaining the traditions of southern Mexicans. It teaches understanding and tolerance of other Latino student's beliefs while allowing and introduction to understanding the concept of death. There are many picture books on Day of the Dead for pre-K and many resource programs and books for older students as well. We have an extensive book offering of hard to find titles on our Book page.

Is Day of the Dead satanic?

No. It's a beautiful, happy and colorful holiday that has nothing to do with the devil.

Romantic skeleton folk art miniature Folk Art

Is the folk art sold on your site "Fair Trade"?

Our folk art is purchased fairly, but not through "fair trade" cooperative organizations. I started working directly with agrarian based folk artists in Mexico in 1979 and have always paid what the artist asked for their hand crafted goods. Fair Trade organizations in Mexico tend to work with artists that sell substandard quality and benefit when collectives are created and fixed prices are paid irregardless of the quality of work. I have found fair trade to not be "fair" if an artist is superlative and working hard on quality, design and using their imagination. They have their work discounted by less talented artists who are in the pool of suppliers. Fair Trade always sounds politically correct, but in practice, it's not fair to the artist who is excelling in their craft. Frequently, women discount their work and I pay them more than they ask for their folk art. My business style is to always work with the best artists that appreciate quality and detail. In the case of our papier mache and papel picado artists, I enjoy working with artists that make things with style and detail of yester year. I also buy from other importers who I know respect artists in their business dealings. Rest assured that folk art purchased on this website came from happy artists!

day of the dead novio papel picado paper banners Papel Picado

Are the papel picado banners made by laser cutting machines?

Absolutely not!

Papel picado or paper cut banners are a very old Mexican tradition dating back to the 17th century. Traditionally using "papel de china" (tissue paper), the original paper was imported from China. Stacks of tissue paper are cut with chisels and hammers by expert artists (with strong arms), cutting every little cut into the stack of paper. One wrong move and the stack of paper is ruined. The artist that makes our papel picado is an award winning, seventy + year artist who draws every banner design. His detail contains double the cutouts and work as most commonly found banners and his rick rack bottom edges go back to photographs of papel picado he found in his research and in museum collections. His work is exquisite and I'm sure you will enjoy looking at it.

Black on orange Mexican Oilcloth Oilcloth

Is your oilcloth the same as my grandmother's oilcloth of the 1940's?

Not exactly. It's much better! The old oilcloth was made of an oil by-product and got crackly as it aged. Modern oilcloth maintains the name but it's made of modern plastic material on top of a durable net grid. It's durable but playable. It doesn't dry out and crack. It's printed with a four-color roller process in Mexico. Out of all the oilcloth factories in Mexico, we sell from a few of the top quality manufacturers. Oilcloth meets many fire codes for restaurant use. See our oilcloth.

What is the difference between oilcloth and vinyl tablecloths?

Oilcloth is frequently confused with cheap vinyl tablecloths. Vinyl is typically identified by a "furry" underside. It's not as durable as oilcloth. It stains easily and is flammable. Vinyl table coverings generally do not have the depth of color that is possible in oilcloth. Oilcloth is a standard 47 inch width.

- Angela Villalba

Owner, Reign Trading Company

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