Monday, November 1, 2010

A Brief History of Día de los Muertos for Children

Photo by Uteart
 In honor of this holiday, here is a simple explanation for young students.

The History

Día de los Muertos is a very old Mexican tradition when people take the time to remember family members and friends who have died. Today, it is traditionally celebrated on November 1st and 2nd.

Because it is colorful and joyful, it is now celebrated by more and more people around the world.

In Mexico, it is mostly 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 altar-building 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.

Mexicans begin to get ready for the holiday about a week 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. 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.

The Altar

In the days leading up to the holiday, each family creates a beautiful altar, sometimes referred to as an ofrenda, in their home. The altars are carefully decorated and covered in gifts. The altar is constructed with at least three levels. It is lovingly decorated by all family members with pictures of the loved ones that are being remembered.

Gifts of water, flowers, candles, and more may be placed on the altar. Each item has symbolic value. Some of the deceased's favorite foods and other items may also be included to honor their memory or recall their habits.


Calaveras, or skulls, can be placed on the altar as decoration. Sugar skulls, especially, have become quite popular. As their name suggests, these little skulls are made of sugar and taste like candy. They are usually decorated with icing to make them more fun and colorful. Not only are they great for decorating, but they are also yummy to eat. Smashing it 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.

If you'd like to try making your own sugar skulls, or to order your sugar skull kits, check out the resources listed below.

Photo by Alex Barth

Sugar Skull Resources This is the most comprehensive website with detailed instructions for making your own sugar skulls, chocolate skulls(!), and much more. They also sell kits and molds. A simpler kit at an affordable price can be found at Hearth Song. Kits may be purchased separately or in a party pack. For everything related to Día de los Muertos, check out AZCentral. Full of articles and how-tos, the site even includes a simple at-home sugar skull recipe from the Crafty Chica herself, Kathy Cano Murillo. english/print/skull.html A kid-friendly site with an easy sugar skull recipe that kids can make and shape with their hands, no molds required. All the ingredients may be purchased at your local grocery store.

SACultura This discusses some of the favorite foods used and includes a simple recipe for sugar skulls. Yum!!

Going Beyond
There are a number of ways to supplement this craft kit and provide your child with more opportunities to learn about Day of the Dead. Here are a few ideas for some easy activities:

* Make longer lasting skulls out of play-doh or clay.

* Create your own calavera mask using cardstock and a wooden craft stick as a handle. There is a great pattern in the Teacher's Packet listed below.

* 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.

* Download the Day of the Dead Teacher's Packet at It is filled with word searches, puzzles, coloring pages, and crafts.

* Find a pan de muertos recipe on-line and make it together.

* Make your own miniature marigolds out of yellow tissue paper and green pipe cleaners.

* 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. Or try one of the many free patterns and instructions on-line, like these:

Con mucho cariño....


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...