Ways to Celebrate Day of the Dead

Traditional Mexican Holiday Offers Lots of Chances to Learn

Mexican children show day of the dead traditions that you can share with grandchildren.
Ann Summa / Getty Images

If you grew up in a culture that did not celebrate the Day of the Dead, it may seem like a macabre tradition. Actually, it is a very joy-filled holiday. Once your children or grandchildren have reached an appropriate age, they will enjoy learning about Day of the Dead customs.

If your grandchildren are in school, they may have already learned about this UNESCO-recognized celebration. If so, they will love sharing their knowledge with you.


Origins of the Day of the Dead

Referred to as Dia de Muertos or Dia de los Muertos, this celebration originated in Mexico as a day to celebrate the lives of those who have passed away. Families gathered to tidy up cemeteries and decorate the graves of their ancestors. Another important part of the celebration was the creation of home altars, called ofrendas, to honor the dead. 

In Central and Southern Mexico, where the custom originated, celebrations were typically held near the end of summer.

The celebration eventually was moved to align it with the Christian celebration of Hallowtide, which begins the evening of Oct. 31 and concludes with All Souls' Day on Nov. 2. 

According to Day of the Dead tradition, on the evening of Oct. 31, the souls of dead children, called angelitos, arrive to spend 24 hours with their families. When they leave, the souls of the adult departed arrive for their sojourn with their families.

The celebration of the Day of the Dead now coincides with Allhallowtide, but it should not be confused with Halloween. It is a joyful occasion featuring music, flowers, and fellowship, not a celebration of ghouls and goblins. 

Sharing the Tradition

Since some children are sensitive about the topic of death, you should take the individual natures of your grandchildren in mind before any discussion of Day of the Dead.

It is always a good idea to check with parents before broaching a possibly sensitive subject. Much depends upon what kind of exposure the children have had to death. Among the indigenous peoples of the past, death was, ​of course, a quite common occurrence. It would have been impossible to shield children from its realities. In today's society, however, it's possible for children to have little personal experience of death, and the topic needs to be handled with care.

Some children may be fine with the general topic of death but may be disturbed by mention of the deaths of children. That part of the tradition can be safely deferred until they are older.

Traditional Day of the Dead Foods

Like most holidays, Dia de los Muertos has a traditional menu. Some of these, like the thick corn-based drink atole, may be hard to sell to the grandchildren, but they'll be happy to know that sweet treats are also a part of the tradition.

Sugar skulls are the item most strongly associated with Dia de los Muertos celebrations. Traditionally, they are placed on home altars, but some are meant for actual consumption. If you take the grandchildren to a Mexican market during October, you should have your pick of a variety of sugar skulls.

You can also make your own sugar skulls

The other food item that's an integral part of this celebration is pan de muerto. It's a sweet, yeasty bread that is traditionally decorated with bits of dough shaped into bones. Again, you can buy pan de muerto or make it yourself. 

Day of the Dead Crafts

Beautifully decorated skulls are a hallmark of Muertos celebrations. You will often see these items mixed in with Halloween decorations at your local stores. It's more fun to make your own skull creations than it is to buy them. You can go simple by downloading some coloring pages or choose the more ambitious project of making your own paper mache masks. 

Costumes and Face Paint

Costumes are an important feature of many modern Day of the Dead celebrations. If your grandchildren enjoy dress-up, you can try your hand at duplicating these phantasmic costumes.

 Face paint is used to superimpose a skull image on the faces of children and other celebrants. Brightly colored clothing provides a contrast with the black and white faces. Flowers, especially marigolds, are often placed in the hair or worn as garlands.

Many Day of the Dead costumes feature shell jewelry or shells attached to clothing. The clacking noise of the shells was supposed to wake the dead and keep them from going back to "sleep." Shell bracelets are another meaningful Day of the Dead craft that you can do with grandchildren. If you do a shell bracelet craft, you should string the shells loosely so that they will make noise. Use shells from your last family beach vacation or buy them at the craft store. Stretchy elastic makes sizing a snap. If you end up going to the craft store for supplies, look for skull beads, too. 

More Activities to Share

Watching the 2014 movie The Book of Life can spark all sorts of Day of the Dead discussions. The movie touches upon Muertos traditions, although it also features the type of storyline typical of children's animated features. But the film looks beautiful, and director Jorge Gutiérrez and the film's many artists capture the vibrant colors and many of the iconic motifs of Mexican culture. 

What could be more appropriate for the Day of the Dead than a visit to a cemetery? Do consider whether your grandchildren are old enough and be sure the parents approve. You can take them to see your family plot, or you can tour various cemeteries in your area and talk about how they are different. This activity can be a springboard for a discussion of burial customs.

You can also ask your grandchildren to imagine the cemetery filled with families working to neaten up their family plots, with children running around and perhaps a strolling mariachi band filling the air with lively music. Tell them to imagine a candlelight procession winding through the cemetery at midnight.

Marigolds are the traditional flower used in Day of the Dead celebrations.

Take the grandchildren to a nursery in search of these colorful, pungent plants, which should thrive in either a flower bed or container.

Whatever activities you choose, remember to have a respectful attitude toward the cultural beliefs of others and put the emphasis on learning. Both you and your grandchildren will benefit.