Dia de los Muertos is a holiday celebrating the rebirth of life in death, observed throughout Latin American communities on November 1st and 2nd. Most commonly, celebrations are associated with Mexico, but there are lively celebrations in US cities like Albuquerque, NM; San Diego, CA; San Antonio, TX; Tucson, AZ; and even locally, on Staten Island.
The History of Dia de los Muertos
Dia de los Muertos dates back thousands of years to ancient Mesoamerican cultures like the Aztecs, Mayans, and Toltecs. These civilizations believed that a person traveled to Chicunamictlán (the Land of the Dead) after departing from Earth. Souls must pass nine challenges here, over the course of several years, to reach Mictlán (the final resting place).
Ancient Nahua rituals, originally held for the month of August, provided food, water, and tools to help the souls make this arduous journey. Later, the celebration was moved by Christians to correspond with All Saints and All Souls Days on November 1st and 2nd. The souls of children are believed to return on the 1st and the adults on the 2nd.
Modern families commemorate this holiday with culinary traditions and the creation of altars in their homes. In some communities, it is customary to clean gravestones, decorate the plots with flowers, and hold candlelit vigils in honor of their loved ones.
We love the idea of celebrating Dia de los Muertos because it uniquely recognizes the cyclical nature of life, reinforces family customs, and honors departed relatives. It’s also a fun way to reinforce cultural sensitivity. Here are a few ways to partake in this annual tradition.
Bake Bread of the Dead
Recipes vary, but this version of Pan de Muerto (from a renowned bakery in Mexico City) calls for unbleached flour, sea salt, sugar, crumbled cake yeast, dry yeast, water, over a dozen lightly beaten eggs, unsalted butter, orange rind, and orange flower. Put on the Mariachi music and enjoy the delicious aroma of yeasty bread that fills the air. It only takes 20 minutes to bake, but you’ll need to get your starter ready the day before to allow adequate time for rising. At the end of your rising period, you’ll be fashioning the dough into a skull and crossbones. We also recommend making Mexican Hot Chocolate in the crockpot to go with your bread!
Decorate Your Home with Ofrenda
Ofrenda means “offering.” On November 1st, older members of the community set up altars to commemorate and attract loved ones who have passed away. A fine white tablecloth is laid out on a small wooden table. Decorative tissue paper is placed over the cloth. Images of saints and a crucifix are generally placed on an elevated altar in the center of the table.
The ofrenda includes:
- Velas – candles (one for each departed soul) light the way back home
- Copal – incense elevates the family’s prayers to God
- Flor de Muerto – marigold “flowers of the dead” also helps attract souls to the altar
- Calavera – skulls made of granulated sugar, meringue powder, and water
- Papel picado — perforated papercrafts to denote life’s fragility and invite souls to pass
- Pan de Muerto – “bread of the dead” feeds the hungry souls that come
- Sal – salt in the shape of a cross purifies the souls and protects them from corruption
- Agua – also a purifier, water can quench the thirst of returning souls
- Fotografias – photographs ensure that your loved ones can cross over
Personal items are also typically added. These belongings may include favorite articles of clothing like hats or shawls, beloved toys/games/stuffies for the kids, vices like coffee/cigarettes /liquors honoring a person’s taste, and favorite foods (mole, tamales, fruit, arroz rojo, hot chocolate, and dried fruits, for instance).
Make Sugar Skull Crafts
Sugar skulls are one of the most famous icons known to Dia de los Muertos, representing the sweetness of life. You can buy the molds and make the sugary treats yourself – or perhaps you’d enjoy one of these handicraft versions instead:
Another easy and popular craft is the Dia de los Muertos garland – comprised of pretty patterned papers, string, clothespins, scissors, and markers.
Watch “Coco” for Family Movie Night
“Coco” is a Golden Globe and Academy Award-winning Disney/Pixar animated film, geared toward ages 7+, but suitable for all ages. What 12-year-old Miguel wants most is to play Mariachi music, but his family believes that music has cursed them. This vibrant, beautiful coming-of-age drama is a tribute to kin and culture, as viewers journey to the underworld to uncover Miguel’s family secrets. Blessed with a wonderful soundtrack and packed with references to Dia de los Muertos traditions, the film is as enjoyable as it is educational.
Alt Picks: If you’ve seen “Coco” hundreds of times already, you might want to try: Let’s Go Luna’s “Day of the Dead” episode on PBS; Film School Shorts’ “Dia de los Muertos” on PBS; Scooby Doo and the Monster of Mexico on Amazon Prime; The Book of Life on Hulu; or Super Monster’s Dia los Monsters on Netflix. Once the kids go to bed, check out the James Bond movie Spectre (also on Hulu) — which inspired the first Dia de los Muertos parade in 2016.
Take a Culture Class
If you live in the NYC region, Shine offers Listillos, a Spanish immersion class combining storytelling, games, art, theater, music, cooking, crafts, Spanish language lessons, and field trips. These fun, engaging classes appeal to students learning Spanish as a second language, as well as native natural speakers who want to participate in cultural activities. The bilingual class is taught by a native Spanish speaker and is open to children of all language levels. Contact us to inquire about availability.