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Calaveras shouldn't be scary.

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Welcome to the Día de los Muertos version of KTK. While the dates of celebration this year begins on Friday, November 1 and ends on Saturday, November 2, there would be no holiday at all without preparation. So, in that interest please allow me to present a minor primer on just what Día de los Muertos is all about and a few ways you can participate and make the holiday a part of your family tradition.

Anyone who has read even the shortest sentence I have ever written here on DK know's that I live in and often write about Texas. Since Texas used to be Mexico, there are very many strong traditions that carry over in The Lone Star State and celebrating Día de los Muertos is one of them. As an elementary school teacher serving a predominantly Latino and Mexican immigrant community in Central East Austin, I get an extra dose this time of year. It's a whirlwind of calaveras and calacas, paper marigolds and ornate ofrendas.

My students and I will be making sugar skulls this week and decorating them into next week. It is a wonderfully fun and whimsical art with a serious grounding in the realities of life. It is probably the only time kids get to talk about death and dying in elementary school that isn't scary or sad or attached to an actual passing. And when it so happens a child is currently experiencing a personal loss this time of year (as is the case right now in my school) all of these activities and the discussions around them seem to ease the pain and provide a context for understanding this complicated and unwelcome part of life.

Please jump the Pan de Muerto for more...

Aztec goddess Mictecacihuatl, Queen of Mictlan, the underworld.

Día de los Muertos has its roots in pre-Columbian Aztec mythology, where (per Wikipedia, which is better than I could tell it here)

 

Mictecacihuatl (pronounced 'Meek-teka-see-wahdl'[needs IPA] or 'Meek-teka-kee-wadl') is Queen of Mictlan, the underworld, ruling over the afterlife with Mictlantecuhtli, another deity who is designated as her husband.[1]
Her role is to keep watch over the bones of the dead. She presided over the ancient festivals of the dead, which evolved from Aztec traditions into the modern Day of the Dead after synthesis with Spanish cultural traditions. She is said now to preside over the contemporary festival as well. Mictecacihuatl is known as the Lady of the Dead, since it is believed that she was born, then sacrificed as an infant. Mictecacihuatl was represented with a defleshed body and with jaw agape to swallow the stars during the day.[2]
Like many Mexican and other Latin American cultural traditions, these indigenous roots combined with imported Catholic celebrations gave birth to a rich contemporary heritage whose visual symbolism rivals any other. Día de los Muertos is no exception. It is a time for families to build altars (ofrendas) where the dead are remembered and honored with offerings of sugar skulls, marigolds and prayers. Photos of the dead are set out around numerous candles and memorabilia.All of this accouterment is meant to draw the souls of the deceased to the altar to hear the prayers and wishes from the family. Often the tone is humorous and funny or crazy stories of the dead are routine. A bottle (or more) of tequila is often involved. Families will visit grave sites bearing gifts of the departed's favorite foods and beverages and often possessions that were left behind.
This ofrenda has some crazy mojo.

And there are two days of celebration. One is in memory of children and infants, Nov. 1, Día de los Inocentes ("Day of the Innocents") or Día de los Angelitos ("Day of the Little Angels"). The other, Nov. 2 is in memory of adults, Día de los Muertos or Día de los Difuntos ("Day of the Dead"). In school, we obviously celebrate the "larger" festival of Día de los Muertos. We don't talk about dead children.

What we do talk about are the celebrations, the remembering and the festivities. Kids in my school make all kinds of fun stuff and build a giant ofrenda in the office that gets filled with amazing objects. The favorite activity for students, however, is making sugar skulls. If you follow that link, it will send you to the site that started me off in making them and is in my mind the definitive source for all things sugar skulls.

If you choose to do this activity, please read all instructions carefully and listen to the author when she tells you not to bother making them if it is at all humid or has recently rained. She ain't lyin'. They will not set. If he weather sucks, wait till it's dry again. Ovens won't help, hairdryers are a waste of time. I tell you this from experience to save you pain and frustration.

I'm gonna give the site some props because they have saved my bacon a couple times now, and also because they have really cool molds and a lot of choices to suit every need. My 2 cents? Give these folks some $ love. You won't be disappointed.

Calaveras of Mass Production.

The instructions:

Sugar Skull Recipe

CAUTION - Do not make sugar skulls on a rainy or high humidity day. They will not turn out.

Please don't forget the meringue powder! It's necessary for the sugar skull recipe.

Meringue Powder Brand - It matters!
Do not use meringue powder from hobby shops or cake supply shops as it's usually diluted and cut way too much for use with heavy granulated sugar. It's OK for icing, just it will not hold together sugar skulls! We get calls daily from teachers & folks who's sugar skulls are "sandy" and not sticking together and have a big mess on their hands and don't have enough time to get new meringue powder and redo the project. Start right from the beginning! 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. The only reliable meringue powder is from CK Products or the one sold in Sur La Table gourmet kitchen shops/ catalog.

Mix together well in large bowl
1 teaspoon Meringue Powder for every cup of granulated sugar used.

Step 1 - Mix dry ingredients well.
Step 2 - Sprinkle sugar mixture with 1 teaspoon water per cup of sugar used.
Variation - Colored Skulls
Most people prefer white skulls the first time they make them, but if you'd like colored sugar skulls, add paste food coloring TO THE WATER. For a 5 pound bag of sugar, use 1/4 cup meringue powder and 10 teaspoons of water. Yield 5 large skulls or 20 medium skulls or 100 mini skulls or any combination.

For a 10 pound bag of sugar, use 1/2 cup meringue powder and 7 Tablespoons water. Yield 10 large skulls or 40 medium skulls or 200 mini skulls or any combination.

Here is some info on yields. When your sugar is mixed and ready, you press them into the molds very firmly and turn them out on cardboard (it absorbs) and then leave them alone. In a couple hours the are safe enough to carefully move.

Ratios and Yields.

And I'll let you follow the rest of the instructions on your own, but this is a pretty good taste of what you are in for. It's a tad intensive and takes some dedication, but so very worth it. Decorations are only limited, a we say in the arts, by your imagination and your desire.

So, how do they look? Here are a couple in process from last year.

3rd Graders in process last year.

Colored merengue in squeeze bottles, feathers, beads, sequins, bling. My kids use puff paint bottles because they give great color and stand raised on the surface. Whatever you choose, be creative. The world is your calavera. Use it well.

Gracias y nos vemos en los comentarios.

Originally posted to Kitchen Table Kibitzing on Wed Oct 23, 2013 at 05:00 PM PDT.

Also republished by LatinoKos.

Poll

Curious how we compare to my recent school poll. WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE COLOR?!?!?

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10%3 votes
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20%6 votes

| 29 votes | Vote | Results

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