How to Celebrate Día de los Muertos

Dia de Los Muertos is not the Mexican Halloween. For cultural appreciation to occur, we must have a true understanding of the holiday. Photo by Genaro Servu00edn on

Many of our Mexican faculty and students will soon be celebrating Día de Los Muertos, a distinctively Mexican holiday practiced on Nov. 1st and 2nd, often confused with the American celebration of Halloween.  The Mexican celebration is an occasion to honor those who have passed away and to celebrate life.

Dia de Los Muertos was born from mestizaje, or the process through which a culture or cultural practice is born from the practice of two or more other cultures or cultural practices. For instance, the European practice of Christmas is a unique mix of the Catholic tradition of The Feast of the Nativity and the pagan rituals related to Saturnalia, a celebration of winter solstice. Similarly, Dia de Los Muertos, is a unique mix of Native and Spanish Catholic traditions.  Not believing in a distinct separation between the worlds of the living and the dead, MesoAmerican peoples often buried their dead under their homes in open graves and visited them frequently with offerings.  The Aztecs, in particular, would leave food for dead relatives, burn incense in their honor, and make ofrendas or offerings.

Upon the Spanish arrival, Catholicism slowly influenced these traditions.  For instance, the Spanish encouraged the Natives to honor their dead with these unique rituals on All Saint’s Day and All Soul’s Day (Nov. 1st and 2nd).  The Danza Macabra, or Dance of Death, common in Spanish religious art, where a skeleton, symbolizing death, dances with people, was integrated with skulls, the Native representation of the dead, to create unique, Mexican art.  

Soon, from this mestizaje, the Day of the Dead emerged.  Nov. 1 is dedicated to children who have passed away and the 2nd to adults.  On these days, many visit cemeteries with their families to decorate the graves of loved ones with marigolds, candles,  photos, and foods the deceased had enjoyed.  Mariachi music is often played.  Offerings may be built with papel picado (paper cutting art), skeletons, foods, and drinks for the dead.  Feasts for the living may include mole (meat cooked with chili sauce), rice puddings, tamales, and bread covered with pink sugar, shaped like people or bones.  While specifics and the extent of celebration vary across the nation, Día de Los Muertos has become a unique symbol of Mexican culture.

How to Celebrate in Your Classroom

You may be wondering how to bring Día de Los Muertos into your classroom without cultural appropriation.  Here are a few ideas. 

  1. Compare and Contrast: Create a Venn Diagram of the similarities and differences between the MesoAmerican rituals, Spanish Catholic traditions, and the current celebration.
  2. Integrate Information from Different Texts:  Read about other cultures and compare how they honor their dead.  For instance, did you know that Hindus celebrate the death anniversary  of loved ones by offering them water and prayers?
  3. Vocabulary:  Have students talk about the importance of rituals and customs they have at home.
  4. Crafts: As a class, create papel picado, paper marigolds, and sugar skull art. Discuss the significance of the crafts.
  5. More Compare and Contrast: Compare the mestizaje that occurred in the creation of Día de los Muertos to other holidays such as Christmas. What are examples of mestizaje that are currently occurring both at individual levels (such as among immigrant families) and at societal levels?

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