According to Waverly Fitzgerald, author of the excellent and thorough seasonal holiday website School of the Seasons, (and many books) November 1st, or All Saints Day, is celebrated differently in many different parts of the world. From the School of the Seasons:
All the gods of the world were worshipped on this day from sunrise to sunset, goes an Irish saying. [Kightly] The Celtic Coligny calendar designates these three nights as the end of summer (which begins on Beltane, May 1st), the time when flocks are moved to the winter pastures, the beginning of the dark half of the year. The time of the last harvest, of apples and nuts, which are used for divination. The dead are honored with offerings of food: soul cakes in England, fava beans in Italy. In Mexico, offerings include bread, fruit, sweets, wax candles, flowers, liquors, cigarettes, mole, pulque, tamales. The candles burning in pumpkins, gourds or turnips light the way for the dead to return.
The Catholic feast day of All Saints was celebrated on the Sunday after Pentecost, until 609 or 610, when Pope Boniface dedicated the Pantheon to Saint Mary and martyrs on May 18th and that became the new date. This is interesting as there are other feasts of the dead in May, including the Roman Lemuria (May 9) and Memorial Day was long associated with the dead also. The date of November 1st was established in the eighth and ninth centuries.
The Irish and Scotch call this date Samhain and Samhuin and honor the dead by lighting bonfires. This is seen as the start of the dark half of the year, and since the Celts began their days at dusk, it is thus the start of the new year. In Ireland, this day is known as the feast of Moingfhionn, a demoness whose name means Whitehair, perhaps a representative of the coming winter and the old age of the year.
I wanted to learn more about the Day of the Dead traditions of Mexico, in order to incorporate those traditions into our celebrations at the Cake Shop. (Our new neighbors Bury Me Naturally and Farm Girl are having their grand opening on November 1st and 2nd- fitting opening days for a casket shop- and Short Street Cakes will be hosting a Dia De Los Muertos altar created by local immigrants rights organization Defensa Communitaria. more on both of these happenings in subsequent blog posts).
I asked local artist, author, and craft queen Suzie Millions to teach me how to make the skulls. She graciously invited me to her Tingle Alley studio to learn the craft.
Our Gracious Host:
What you will need:
Sugar skull molds. Available at mexicansugarskull.com.
6 Tablespoons water.
Postcard size pieces of cardboard, lots of them.
5 pounds of white sugar.
1/4 cup of meringue powder. (I know, this is not my typical from-scratch recipe. The saving grace is that sugar skulls are not for eating, so it doesn’t really matter that Meringue powder is made with a bunch of synthetic chemicals, right? OK, OK, by next year I will have figured out how to do these with fresh, organic, local egg whites and organic, unbleached sugar. Also by next year: Dead Bread?)
In a large bowl, mix the sugar and the meringue powder.
Add the water, and knead by hand, until “every grain of sugar is coated.” This will have the consistency of really nice beach sand, and is probably wonderfully exfoliating for your hands (if you’re into that sort of thing).
Pack the sugar tightly into your mold.
Scrape off the excess from the back of the mold, and then turn the sugar skull over onto a piece of cardboard. Leave out to dry for a day before decorating, ah like so:
Uh, we haven’t quite gotten to that part yet- you can come learn with me on Sunday at the Cake Shop- but here are Suzie’s finished sugar skulls for sale at LOFT downtown:
After that, Jasper, Duncan and I made a batch for ourselves at the cake shop.
On Sunday, November 1st, at the Cake Shop, we’ll be decorating these sugar skulls and making an altar to honor our loved ones who have passed. Come celebrate and learn with us!