Global Holidays at Home: Mexico's El Dia de los Muertos
There aren’t too many cultures that can make death into a fun family activity, but Mexico’s El Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, manages to do just that. The three-day celebration blends the Catholic tradition of celebrating saint’s days with tones of the pre-Colombian spiritualism that’s been around in Mexico for hundreds of years.
But you don’t have to travel south of the border to join in the fun. Let your kids enjoy your own family celebration with movies, face painting, and activities to remember your relatives. Forget the candy this year, and just focus on celebrating family!
What’s in a Dia?
The Dia de los Muertos tradition revolves around the native Mexican idea that the spirits of the dead are actually alive in the underworld, separated from the living by a firmament whose bounds are broken for one day a year: the Day of the Dead.
The festival, however, lasts for three days. On October 31, families prepare the cemetery with a loved one’s favorite foods, smells, and objects around the grave site. A doorway of marigolds welcomes these souls back to life. November 1 celebrates dead children who have returned for the one-day visit; on November 2, departed adults have their day of release.
Morbid as it may sound, the festival is celebratory, as its purpose is to remember the dead as if they’re still living. Dia de los Muertos is a great way to open up conversations about death by allowing kids to celebrate the lives of lost loved ones instead of grieving their loss.
Grab your face painting supplies and get the kids all dressed up – no mummies or pirates allowed. This time, everyone gets to be a skull. For this colorful festival, paint your kids’ faces white and draw the black outline of teeth, eyes, and skull for maximum effect.
Black and white are your primary colors here, but you can also use more colorful flourishes. Paint red and yellow flowers on the face to symbolize the blood of the living, and the marigolds that guide the dead back to earth. In Mexican tradition, purple represents grief, while pink is a sign of hope.
If you think your kids are ready for it, get out a photo of Grandma (or any of your other ancestors, maybe ones who are decades gone) and start the decoration phase. Circle your relative’s photo with their favorite foods, clothes, and other items. Create a doorway of marigolds and tell stories about this ancestor. Remember what he or she has meant to your family; this is a great way to create family memories of your own.
Eat Your Heart Out
What did your family ancestors like to eat? Find a traditional recipe celebrating your family’s background: your grandma’s favorite breakfast food, great-grandpa’s homemade meat dish, or even a family cookie recipe. Cooking the food of your ancestors is another way to draw them out of the grave, and back for a visit when their day arrives.
Alternately, make this a Mexican dish day. You can buy sugar skulls, a candy of hardened sugar baked into a skull-shaped mold, at Mexican bakeries during the Muertos season. Decorate the skulls with colored frosting, food coloring, and even non-edibles like tin foil and flowers, to make the skulls resemble your loved ones.
Pan de Muerto, a sweet bread (something like brioche), is another popular item during this season. The bread is fashioned into small loaves, with miniature “bones” (made of dough) stuck to the top of the loaf before baking. Feel free to make bone shapes out of anything else in your house that’s edible to be extra festive. Chocolate, jell-o, and candied pumpkin all work well.
Dialing it Back
If the celebration of your dead relatives isn’t something your family feels comfortable doing together, you could always celebrate with a great film about the holiday and enjoy the culture from the outside. Alternately, watching a movie first could loosen your kids up and get them ready for the celebration to come.
Watch the 2014 animated film, The Book of Life, to see a folk tale based on Dia de los Muertos play out onscreen. In the film, two rulers of the underworld – one who rules the Land of the Remembered, and the other who rules the Land of the Forgotten – make a wager about which of two boys will marry a girl. Through the warring of the gods, one of these boys is sent to the underworld and must defeat his own demons with the help of his deceased family ancestors in order to return to his beloved in the land of the living.
A Day to Remember
However you celebrate, Dia de los Muertos will help your kids remember their ancestors and explore your family’s past. Take this time to cherish and remember your loved ones and carry them with you throughout the rest of the year.
Will you be celebrating Dia de los Muertos this year? Tell us all about your plans!