History of Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) for Kids

Have you seen the movie Coco? If so, do you remember the song “Remember Me”? It goes “Remember me, though I have to say goodbye. Remember me, don’t let it make you cry. For even if I’m far away, I hold you in my heart, I sing a secret song to you each night we are apart.” It’s the song that made the singer Ernesto de la Cruz famous (even though he did get smashed by the giant bell!). That’s what we all want, we all want to be remembered by our family and friends. The movie Coco is about a holiday in Mexico called Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead. It is all about remembering the ancestors and loved ones that have passed on before us. This holiday is a celebration that shows death is not the end of our relationships, that our loved ones continue to be a part of our lives as we remember them. 

The beginning of Dia de los Muertos goes way back to the Aztec people who lived in what is now central Mexico hundreds of years ago. The Aztec didn’t consider death the end of existence, instead they saw it as the next stage in life. At the time, they used skulls to honor their own dead relatives thousands of years before modern celebrations began. By the 1500s, Europeans had discovered the Americas and the Spanish explorers found the Aztecs. Battles between the two people led to the Aztecs being conquered by the Spaniards. The new rulers brought with them their Catholic faith. Often what happens in places like Mexico is holidays change based on the latest religion. This is just what happened with Dia de los Meurtos as the celebrations of the native people became a Catholic holiday named All Saints Day and All Souls Day. Still today, November 1st is Dia de los Inocentes (which celebrates children) and November 2nd is Dia de los Muertos (which celebrates adults). The parties and festivities sometimes start the day before on October 31st. During the Days of the Dead, it’s believed that the dead can leave the spirit world and visit loved ones in the real (or mortal) world.

toy collection

Have you ever made something to show a family member that you love them? This is one of the most important traditions that happens during Dia de los Muertos. Families build altars to honor family members. The Spanish word for “offering” is “ofrenda.” These ofrendas are very special and sacred, and is a tradition that is very respected. Families spend these days gathered around the ofrenda praying and telling stories about their dead ancestors. Sometimes ofrendas are set up in public spaces, like schools or libraries, but they are mostly seen in private homes for the family. Ofrendas have pictures of dead loved ones, along with their things from when they were alive and their favorite foods and drinks, for example. Because they believe the soul can be around during these days, the family makes it a place that the loved one would want to come and visit. During the festival, it is common for families to go to the cemetery to clean and decorate the tombstones of ancestors and set up an ofrenda there as well. Ofrendas and graves are usually decorated with Mexican orange marigolds, which today in Mexico is sometimes called “Flor de Muerto” (the Flower of the Dead). It’s believed these marigolds attract souls to the ofrendas, and that the bright petals with their strong smell can help guide souls from the cemetery to their families. 

Take a moment to think of your favorite holiday! Is there special food you enjoy that time of the year? Do you have a favorite food that you like to eat during that holiday? Dia de los Muertos is the same. Food is a huge part of Dia de los Muertos! Food is eaten by the living and given as an offering to the dead on ofrendas. A favorite food on this holiday is tamales. Another favorite is a sweet bread called Pan de Muerto. It is shaped like a bun and is topped with sugar. Drinks are a huge part of the holiday as well, with families enjoying the favorite drinks of their loved ones. Atole is a common drink for the adults, along with champurrado being drank by everyone, it is a warm and thick masa drink. A very popular herbal tea called Agua de Jamaica is also enjoyed, it is made from the flowers and leaves of the Jamaican hibiscus flower.

If I said, “Imagine a pumpkin,” which holiday comes to your mind?  Something that helps you remember or think of something else is a symbol. What other holidays can you think of a symbol for? The most well-known symbol for Dia de los Muertos is the calavera, or the skull. They are used everywhere, from masks to chocolate to sugar skulls! Traditionally sugar skulls are made to represent the soul of the deceased loved one. The colorful design represents their personality, and the name is written on the forehead. They are placed on the family’s ofrenda and sometimes taken to the cemetery and placed by the grave of the loved ones. Sometimes the Pan de Muerto is formed into the shape of a skull and decorated with white frosting to look like twisted bones.

a colorful skull sitting on top of a table next to candles

Being a kid during Dia de los Muertos is a lot of fun! In some parts of Mexico, especially the bigger cities, kids go door to door and ask people on the streets for calaveritas. Calaveritas are small gifts of money or candy. The tradition is like trick or treating in the United States. Kids also get to help build the ofrendas for their ancestors. After the ofrenda is built, kids and families go to the cemetery for a big party. A delicious feast is eaten while the family cleans tombstones, tells stories, talks to ancestors, and sings songs. Here kids get to learn more about their family members who passed on before they were born.

At the heart of all the fun and excitement of Dia de los Muertos, is the fact that the holiday is really about remembering and honoring those in our families who have passed on. By remembering them, we make sure our loved ones still have a place in our lives. We also make sure these memories are shared with the next generation. It’s a wonderful celebration that should be honored and respected. If you decide to use some of the Dia de los Meurtos traditions with your own family, take some time to do your own research and learn more about it, so you can do it according to tradition. If you were to build an ofrenda for someone in your family this year, who would be on it and what stories would you tell?