Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, gained new attention with the younger generation when the movie “Coco” came out a few years ago. We all recall this movie with its catchy songs, bright colors, and heartfelt message that brought out the best of the Mexican culture while giving us a glimpse into the meaning behind this tradition. Although this early November holiday is familiar to many, it isn’t one we teach about at Spanish Schoolhouse Arlington. However, there are lots of age-appropriate ways you can incorporate it into cultural learning at home if you’re intrigued! Read along to learn what this holiday is about and to find suggested activities and linked events at the end.
What’s Up With All Those Skeletons?
Let’s start by clearing up some common misconceptions about Día de los Muertos and its roots. Is it a Mexican Halloween? Nope. Is it a sad day for remembering the deceased? Not quite. Día de los Muertos does remember the deceased, but it’s anything but somber! It’s more of a celebration!
Celebrating lost loved ones is a long tradition in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. It was commonly believed that death was a part of and integral to the cycle of life. Roman Catholic traditions also adopted some pagan customs related to death and incorporated them into All Saints Day and All Souls Day.
Let’s take a deeper look at this popular holiday celebration in Mexico and beyond!
Connecting the Living and the Dead
On the Day of the Dead, it is commonly believed that the border between the real world and the spirit world is bridged. The souls of the departed can return to their loved ones and eat, drink, dance, and celebrate. Special ofrendas (offerings or altars) are assembled not to worship, but rather to honor the departed and attract the spirits to return. Each one is unique to the person being honored!
Common items you might place on or around an ofrenda are:
- Photos of the departed
- Marigolds (referred to as la flor de los muertos) – these may line a path to the ofrenda to help the spirit find their way
- Pan de muerto (a special bread – try this recipe!), favorite foods and drinks of the loved one
- Any other special mementos of the person, such as a musical instrument, baseball, etc
More than Just a “Day” of the Dead
In modern-day Mexico (and other countries like Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru, Guatemala, and Haiti.), Día de los Muertos is not just one day. It is celebrated each year from November 1- 2.
Beginning at midnight on Nov. 1, the celebrations start with Día de los Angelitos. On this day, deceased children are thought to be reunited with their families for 24 hours. Their ofrendas are playful, with balloons, toys, snacks, and sweets like sugar skulls to encourage their return. Although some families have lost a child, they have gained an angel.
During the day on Nov. 2, there may be festive parades with music, flowers, and everyone in costume. You’ll see many life-sized skeletons or other humorous representations of the dead. Papier-mâché folk art creatures (called alebrijes) may participate in the parade.
The night of Nov. 2 begins Día de los Difuntos. This more “adult” celebration might involve music, dance, and games. Families may visit the cemetery to pray and decorate the graves of loved ones with candles and flowers, and sometimes even share a meal with their loved ones as they would have when they were alive.
Celebrating Cultures, Expanding Worlds
While partying with the dead may seem unusual in some cultures, in Mexico and other Latin countries, death is felt to be another part of the life cycle. Children and adults alike learn that death is not something to be feared but rather focus on the everlasting connection with our loved ones through these special remembrances. It’s comfort and a joy that just might help us all. If you want to incorporate some of these traditions into your family’s cultural learning, here are some family-friendly events in DFW, Austin, or Houston that may help!