Monday, November 1, 2010

A Brief Description of Día de los Muertos for Children

Photo by Uteart

Explaining Día de los Muertos (or Day of the Dead) to children is important because without careful explanation, it may be easy for children to confuse the celebration with Halloween. However, this lovely holiday has a much more personal meaning to those who celebrate it. In honor of this holiday, here is a simple explanation of Day of the Dead for Children. For a more comprehensive list of resources, check out my Día de los Muertos, Day of the Dead Lesson Plans and Activities

This post may contain affiliate links. 

The History

Día de los Muertos is a very old holiday when people take the time to remember family members and friends who have died. It's best associated with Mexico, but other countries also celebrate it, including many people here in the United States. 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. These are not to worship. Instead, they are lovely displays that remember family and friends who are no longer living. 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 a special meaning. 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.

Dia de los Muertos Cookie Kit 
Make your own sugar skull cookies and beautifully decorate them with this kit from Crafty Cooking Kits. Complete with food brushes, the kit contains sugar cookie and royal icing mix, skull cookie cutters, black icing pens, and edible watercolor palettes.

A fabulous recipe and (video) tutorial for making calaveras from the awesome Yvonne Condes over at MomsLA.

The Easiest Sugar Skull Tutorial-Great For Kids!
Hola Jalapeño has a fabulous kid-friendly tutorial for DIY sugar skulls. They make it look so easy!!

How to Make a Sugar Skull Craft for Kids
Marcie in Mommyland has this fun craft for making sugar skulls out of papier maché skulls. 

Printable Day of the Dead Reading Passages for Children

For kids in 4th grade and up!
Comes with a one-page reading passage and an 8-question comprehension quiz.
UPDATED! Now with Easel Activities and Assessments for teachers on TpT.

For PreK through 4th grades
This minibook is an introduction to the Mexican holiday, Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead. This book include coloring pages of items most closely associated with the holiday, as well as brief descriptions in English and Spanish that are easy for young children to understand.

Kid-Friendly Activities for Day of the Dead

There are a number of activities your child can do to 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.

* Use my miniature pan de muertos recipe 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 from my friend, Dariela, over at Mami Talks!

Other Posts About Day of the Dead


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