Despite the popularity of the animated movies “The Book of Life” and “Coco,” Day of the Dead remains one of the most misunderstood holidays in the United States. Its proximity to Halloween and use of decorative skulls and skeletons confuses outside observers who don’t know the history and intention behind the observance. In this post, we’ll discuss Day of the Dead facts, traditional ways to observe the holiday, and we’ve included many worksheets and Day of the Dead activities ideas to teach students and children about this wonderful holiday from Mexico.
What is Day of the Dead?
Day of the Dead – or Día de los Muertos – is a very old Mexican tradition in which people take the time to remember their loved ones who have died. It is celebrated on November 1st and 2nd. It is not morbid nor does it glorify the macabre. Instead, this beautiful holiday gives people the opportunity to celebrate the lives of their friends and family who have passed away. For this reason, Day of the Dead is both special and important.
It’s also an opportunity to help children learn about the grieving process and how we can move beyond it to that bittersweet place of remembering people we’ve lost without sadness. This is a crucial developmental skill that children must learn and unfortunately, here in the United States, it is not one that is taught.
How it is celebrated
In Mexico, it has been traditionally celebrated in the rural areas – or countryside, towns, and villages – by indigenous people. Indigenous means those people who have lived there a very long time. Each of the towns or regions may celebrate the day in a slightly different way. For example, some towns may celebrate the day by going to the cemetery and preparing a feast at the gravesite of a relative on the eve of Nov. 2. And the custom of building a display may differ from one state to another.
Some of the native people in Mexico believe that the souls of their family and friends first gather at major archaeological sites, such as the pyramids of Teotihuacan outside Mexico City or Monte Alban in Oaxaca. They then find their way back home by the church bells in their hometowns or by following trails of marigolds, or cempasúchiles.
Because it is colorful and joyful, Day of the Dead is now celebrated by more and more people here in the United States and around the world. Even though the way it is observed varies from town to town – or even family to family – the holiday typically centers around a display either at the gravesite or in the family’s home.
Preparations for the holiday begin a week or more before Nov. 1. Panaderías (bakeries) are filled with pan de muertos (bread of the dead), and florists sell out of every kind of flower, especially the cempasúchil (marigold). Stores are filled with sugar skulls (calaveras) of every size, and museums proudly display their exhibits of skeleton figurines dressed as mariachis or everyday workers, such as plumbers, taxi drivers, or doctors.
In the days leading up to the holiday, each family creates a beautiful altar, sometimes referred to as an ofrenda, in their home. But these altars are not for worshipping. Instead, they are decorative displays built in memory of those being remembered. The altars are carefully decorated and covered in gifts. The items usually represent the deceased’s favorite foods and hobbies.
Items such as water, flowers (especially marigolds), candles, and more may be placed on the altar. Each item has symbolic value.
On the evening of Day of the Dead, families gather around their ofrendas and spend their time remembering their loved ones by telling stories, staring at the photographs, and simply thinking of the precious memories they have of their dearly departed. It is meant to be a joyous – if somewhat bittersweet – occasion.
Elements of the Ofrenda Display
At the center of every ofrenda is the photograph of the deceased. It might be simply of one’s grandmother or grandfather, or the ofrenda may be covered with many photographs in honor of all the people who have passed away that are beloved to that family. It is important to have pictures of your loved ones on your ofrenda as they help you to remember their faces, and for others to know to whom the ofrenda is dedicated.
The flower most closely associated with Day of the Dead is the marigold. Some believe that the souls of the departed find their way back home by following paths of marigolds. Other flowers may represent the loved one’s favorite blooms, or simply be used to make the ofrenda more beautiful.
An important part of an ofrenda, the candles are believed to light the way back to Earth for the souls of the dead who may want to visit with their living relatives on Day of the Dead. Typically, there is a candle placed on the display for each of the loved ones being remembered. But additional candles may be used for added beauty.
A Glass of Water
Water is one of the basic necessities of life. So a glass of water may be added to the ofrenda in honor of the lives that were lived, or as a symbolic gesture to quench the thirst of their love one who has traveled a long way to spend one night with the family.
Pan de Muerto
This simple, sweet bread is usually eaten in the days leading up to Day of the Dead. It is decorated with bone-shaped designs in a circle to represent the cycle of life. Here is a recipe to make it yourself!
Some of the deceased’s favorite foods and other items may also be included to honor their memory or recall their habits.
Calaveras, or sugar skulls, are usually placed on the altar as decoration. As their name suggests, these little skulls are made of sugar and taste like candy. They are typically decorated with colorful icing. Smashing one with your fist and eating the shattered pieces is a way of showing that you’ve conquered death, if only symbolically.
The calaveras are often misunderstood by people who do not know the history of the holiday. The skulls are not intended to be scary, but rather symbolic: The skull represents the death of the body or the passing away of the person, and the decorative designs represent the beauty of their life.
Miniature skulls and skeletons, therefore, are not thought to be scary and are often left as toys for the deceased or to poke fun at death.
Day of the Dead Activities
Help your students explore Hispanic people and culture with these three activities:
Have your students research the famous artist and lithographer José Guadalupe Posada. Posada was a political satirist, whose most famous illustration is “La Calavera de la Catrina.” This particular image is most closely associated with the Day of the Dead. Author and illustrator Duncan Tonatiuh has a children’s picture book featuring José Guadalupe Posada titled, Funny Bones: Posada and His Day of the Dead Calaveras.
Language Arts Day of the Dead Worksheets
Calavera poems are short, clever poems that are written around the time of Dia de los Muertos. Usually, they rhyme, are funny, and poke fun at the living. They may be written about politicians, celebrities, or local figures. Sometimes, they are accompanied by illustrations.
Have your child write his or her own poem in honor of a loved one who has passed away, or to celebrate Day of the Dead.
Day of the Dead Craft: Printable Papel Picado Banner
Papel Picado is a Mexican folk art of intricately cut colored tissue paper banners. Allow older kids to try their hand at making their own papel picado. To make your own pattern, fold your tissue paper in half twice, use scissors and hole punches to cut your designs, in a similar way that paper snowflakes are made.
Alternatively, decorate your classroom work area with printable papel picado panels or letters to spell out the names of relatives or family pets who have passed away with our printable papel picado alphabet letters and banner art:
Based on the artwork of José Guadalupe Posada, use construction paper, paint, tissue paper and feathers to make a hanging Day of the Dead Calavera. This project is beautiful enough to be interesting for tweens and teens, but easy enough for preschool kids to make!
Day of the Dead Coloring Pages and Pumpkin Designs
Enjoy these other Day of the Dead activity pages from Woo! Jr. Kids Activities!