Death is a part of living. We understand this concept as adults, but explaining this to our children can be a touchy and emotional minefield filled with awkward pauses as we grasp for the “right” words. In Mexican culture, although we certainly mourn our loved ones who passed away, death does not sever our connection to those we love. In fact, a quintessential element of Mexican culture is embracing the concept that love transcends time, space, and logic. Just listen to any mariachi song and you will hear odes about the complexities of love. Nowhere can this belief be exemplified more clearly than through the thousands-year-old, heartwarming tradition of Dia de los Muertos, otherwise known as Day of the Dead.
In its most simplistic definition, Dia de los Muertos honors and celebrates our family and friends who have passed away. When most of the United States is preparing their houses to be spooky for Halloween, many Mexican/Mexican American households are meticulously gathering all the elements to make their multicolored, traditional Day of the Dead altars. Dia de los Muertos is one of my favorite Mexican holidays that I cherish with my family because it’s a joyful celebration about the power of eternal love.
When is Dia de los Muertos?
Dia de los Muertos is a national Mexican holiday honoring the memory of the departed souls who continue to live in our hearts. It is celebrated from Nov. 1 (All Saints’ Day) to Nov. 2 (All Souls’ Day).
The history of Dia de los Muertos is rooted in indigenous traditions of the ancient Aztec, Toltec, and other Nahua people originating from Mexico. Later on, elements were infused from Spanish and Catholic cultures. According to National Geographic, “In 2008, UNESCO recognized the holiday’s importance, naming it an intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.”
Extraordinarily vibrant ofrendas (altars) are assembled with colorful adornments including flowers, candles, papel picado, pan de muerto (Mexican sweet bread called bread of the dead), water, salt, and calaveras de azucar (sugar skulls). Each oftenda is customized with the deceased’s favorite foods, any personalized items, and photos to commemorate their ongoing presence in our lives.
Family members also visit the cemeteries where their loved ones are buried to clean their gravestones and decorate with colorful flowers and other adornments. During this period, it is believed that the souls of the departed come to visit us to feast, drink, dance, and play music with the living to reunite with their family in a festive celebration. Although originating in Mexico, many Latin American countries now honor Dia de los Muertos with their own customs and traditions.
Common misconceptions about Dia de los Muertos:
“It’s the Mexican version of Halloween.”
The proximity of The Day of the Dead to Halloween is purely coincidental. Dia de los Muertos had existed long before Halloween became popular and has absolutely no direct correlation or similarities to the American tradition.
“Dia de los Muertos is a Catholic tradition.”
This holiday originated with the indigenous people of Mexico thousand of years ago, well before the colonization of these regions by European settlers (Spanish conquistadores). These colonizers then indoctrinated the native people of Mexico into Catholicism.
The elements of the ofrenda (altar) that are of religious significance, like the cross, were later incorporated due to the Catholic influence and beliefs of Mexicans after they were conquered by the Spanish. However, Dia de los Muertos traditionally does not have any direct association with Catholicism.
“Dia de los Muertos is scary.”
The Aztecs did not believe in mourning the dead and, instead, created this Mexican tradition to celebrate the deceased’s presence still in our lives. The spirits who visit us on Dia de los Muertos are those we love, so happiness surrounds the festivities.
“Dia de los Muertos is a sad celebration.”
The Aztecs felt that death is just another stage of life that all humans experience, so it shouldn’t be feared or mourned. Mexicans believe the dead live on in our hearts and memories for eternity. Because of this, Dia de los Muertos celebrates the dead through a cheerful atmosphere, with explosions of color, decor, and food to welcome our deceased loved ones who temporarily visit us on this holiday.
5 Ways to Celebrate Dia de los Muertos
Below, I’ve curated a list of five unique ways to celebrate Dia de los Muertos. I hope you join me and my family in honoring the transcending existence of eternal love.
Decorate Sugar Cookies
The calavera (skull) is a symbolic element of Dia de los Muertos. Sugar skulls are used to adorn the ofrenda (altar) dedicated to our deceased loved ones. Additionally, La Catrina—a female skeleton dressed in traditional upper-class clothing—is also prominently displayed in the celebration. The images of the calaveras and La Catrinas can inspire the creation of delicious Dia de los Muertos sugar skull cookies with the most vibrant colors and sweet flavors.
Pinterest has loads of recipes to help you decorate many variations of sugar skull cookies. You can try a more elaborate sugar skull cookie recipe or a simpler recipe that is just as yummy and visually enticing. You and your little bakers can experiment with a variety of colors and different styles of sugar skulls as a way to bond and remember your loved ones who have passed away.
Create Your Own Ofrenda (Altar)
Assemble your own ofrenda with your family to partake in the Dia de los Muertos festivities. You can honor as many of your deceased loved ones as you like. My boys and I enjoy collecting all the different elements as I simultaneously explain their significance and share why this loved one is worthy of our altar. This process of creating our ofrendas offers a safe vehicle to discuss life and death in a way that children can grasp and appreciate.
There are many unique ways to design your ofrenda, so I encourage you to be creative with your family. However, there are certain components of each ofrenda believed to assist in temporarily welcoming the spirits to visit us during this time. Each element has a symbolic meaning. Below is an explanation of each element and its significance.
There are several layers incorporated into each ofrenda to depict the separation of life and death. Ofrendas can be assembled in two, three, or seven layers. I prefer making mine in three layers showcasing the sky, the earth, and the underworld.
1. Fire: Represented in the form of candles, fire is believed to be a sign of the ascension of the spirit after death and a guiding light for the souls of the departed to visit the land of the living.
2. Papel Picado Paper: Created with unique designs cut from colorful tissue paper, papel picado represents the element of “air” and the connection between life and death. It is usually displayed above the ofrenda. If you are feeling extra crafty, try creating your own papel picado with your little ones! They will get plenty of practice using their fine motor skills in the process.
3. Flowers: A typical ofrenda will have white, purple, and yellow flowers adorning it. Although they serve a decorative purpose, they also have symbolic meaning. White flowers represent the sky and purple flowers signify mourning and grief. The yellow marigolds, traditionally referred to as Cempasúchitl, are believed to guide the spirits with their aroma to the land of the living and directly to your altar. Marigolds also happen to be exquisite flowers because of their vibrant texture and color.
4. Incense: A chalice with incense or copal—an incense made of tree resin used in indigenous ceremonies—is displayed to add another aromatic guide for the spirits from the underworld to Earth. It also serves to purify the souls of the departed and block any evil spirits.
5. Water: A glass of water is left on the ofrenda to quench the thirst of the spirits and strengthen them on their journey back home.
6. Banquet: A display of the deceased loved one’s favorite foods and drinks are used to welcome them to the land of the living and re-energize them after their long journeys.
7. Salt: Placed in a plate, salt is used to purify the soul and stop its corruption.
8. Pan de Muerto (Bread of the Dead): This delicious Mexican sweet bread is a gift from the creator of the ofrenda to the departed soul(s). The bread itself is decorated to resemble bones.
9. Calaveras: Made of sugar or chocolate, calaveras (sugar skulls) represent the souls of the departed. Some have the names of the deceased loved ones written on their foreheads. They also have become synonymous with anything related to Dia de los Muertos.
10. Photos and Personal Items: Photos of your deceased loved ones and momentos personal to them are included in the ofrenda as a way to welcome them back to earth. The hope is that these items comfort them after a long journey to be reunited with their loved ones.
11. Cross: Used originally to represent the four elements, it has later been used for religious purposes related to Catholicism.
Go to a Local Dia de los Muertos Celebration
My boys love going to Dia de los Muertos celebrations because they have so many fun and engaging activities for the whole family. Depending on where you live, you can participate in events that celebrate the beauty of Dia de los Muertos. Some parts of the country even have schools that teach students about this Mexican holiday!
Check your local listings to see if there are any festivities you can participate in. Most Day of the Dead festivals have face painting, skull decorating, traditional Mexican music and dancing, and an array of delectable Mexican cuisine. Extraordinary ofrendas, both large and small, may also be displayed publicly.
If there aren’t any public celebrations in your area, perhaps you can invite a few family and friends and start your own traditions to celebrate. In some regions of Mexico, they honor Dia de los Muertos in actual cemeteries by creating a festive atmosphere around the deceased’s gravestone. I feel grateful that I live in a city, Los Angeles, which has the largest celebration of Dia de los Muertos outside of Mexico. The annual Dia de los Muertos celebration at Hollywood Forever Cemetery is an epic event with a feast for all of your senses. I look forward to taking my boys there and having a day full of fun.
At the top of my travel bucket list is taking a family journey to visit the culinary capital of Mexico: Oaxaca. Oaxaca, Mexico any time of year is breathtaking, but during the end of October and the beginning of November, the entire region is transformed into one massive celebration honoring the dead. Oaxaca hosts comparsas, which consist of festive parades with locals dressed in calavera costumes, dancing, listening to music, and indulging in plenty of tasty Mexican food. My hope is to one day take my family to visit Oaxaca to participate in the Dia de los Muertos celebration.
Tell Stories of Your Departed Loved Ones
Because Dia de los Muertos is a tradition to remember and celebrate our departed loved ones, why not take this opportunity to talk to your children about life and death? You can utilize the significance of Dia de los Muertos to open up conversations about the many facets of life.
Perhaps there is one particular loved one you would like to talk about with your kids. For example, you can share cherished photos of this loved one and recount stories about their favorite foods and what you love about them. The purpose would be to invite your little ones to honor the memory of an individual who continues to live on in your heart. Through these conversations, you can have memorable and intimate bonding experiences with your family that bring everyone joy rather than sadness.
Watch a Kid-Friendly Film or Read a Book Celebrating Dia de los Muertos
Because the day has become more popular in American mainstream culture, there are kid-friendly resources available to research the Mexican celebration and many engaging children’s movies and books that bring the holiday to life. I have shared a lot of these with my boys, and they were enthralled with the entertaining stories and technicolor elements of the celebration.
If you are looking for documentaries, I recommend this award-winning animated short documentary film, Dia de los Muertos, that consists of imagery and no words for your sweethearts who are still young. Slightly older kids can watch this short documentary, Dia de los Muertos—A Brief Explainer, which has a fun visual explanation. For your kids who can read, this National Geographic documentary is great.
For character-driven stories with stunning animation, I would recommend Disney’s Coco, which is about a young boy who goes on an adventure to discover his family’s history with music and the love carried through each generation. The Book of Life depicts a fun and loving adventure in which students explore the land of the dead through their introduction to the important The Book of Life.
I also recommend adding to your kid’s library by introducing them to books that share the significance of the Dia de los Muertos celebration.
For younger children, you can read this board book, which has color illustrations explaining the meaning of this celebration. For kids who are emerging readers or fully reading, this is another great option. This lyrical book explores the meaning of Dia de los Muertos in both English and Spanish. board book also available
Día de los Muertos
Dia de Los Muertos
The Day of the Dead / El Dia de Los Muertos: A Bilingual Celebration
For younger children, you can read this board book, which has color illustrations explaining the meaning of this celebration.
For kids who are emerging readers or fully reading, this is another great option.
This lyrical book explores the meaning of Dia de los Muertos in both English and Spanish.
board book also available
There are so many unique ways to incorporate Dia de los Muertos into your family’s traditions. Ultimately, Dia de los Muertos reminds us that true love is eternal and can live on in our hearts and minds. This type of love is worthy of the most festive of celebrations every year.
This article was originally published in 2021 and has been updated for timeliness.