Learned #28: La Dia de los Muertos

In which we find easy answers to kids' questions about Mexico's Day of the Dead

Pumpkins, bats, witches, black cats, and dancing skeletons have been hanging out in my classroom for about a week now; decorating my school for Halloween is one of the most fun parts of the year. I get the kids to help me, assigning various stickers, wall-hangers, and figurines to different students and letting them determine where all the kitsch should go.

Because I'm a teacher and because my school is an independent small business, most of my decorations come from the ¥100 shop (like a dollar store). Nothing wrong with that, especially as a fair number of them won't survive a month's worth of Seek-and-Find, Slap, and Go Fish. What's different this year is the selection of decorations available at the half-dozen ¥100 shops near me (they're really popular) contain a whole wealth of sugar skull, butterfly, and other Día de Muertos images.

The trouble is, my students know nothing about Día de Muertos. Neither do I. So, this week, we're looking through the history and traditions of the holiday for some pithy, easy-to-understand answers I can give my students when they ask me what's with all the pretty skulls?

In this issue:

  • What We're Learning: The Day of the Dead

  • What We're Reading: Stiff, the Curious Lives of Human Cadavers

  • Down the Rabbit Hole: Bond Goes Mexican

Let's get to it.

Photo by Amy Shamblen on Unsplash

What We're Learning:

The Day of the Dead

Let me throw out a caveat right out of the gate - this is a huge topic and one that I feel would be really easy to disrespect by overlooking some crucial aspect through ignorance. That is never my intention. But, as I said above, I'm looking for easy-to-understand tidbits that young children can understand.

That said, I'm going to approach this through the questions the kids have been asking me over the past week:

Is it just Mexico's Halloween?

Not at all. It's actually a lot more like Obon* where people remember their family and friends who have passed on.

Día de Muertos started a long time ago as an Aztec celebration. Modern Mexico is a Catholic country and has three holidays at the end of October and beginning of November: All Saints' Eve, All Saints' Day, and All Souls' Day. Over time the two celebrations combined into the modern Day of the Dead.

Because this festival happens at the same time as the American version of Halloween and because there are a lot of the same images (skeletons, graves, etc.) and because Mexico and the U.S. are neighboring countries, people sometimes think that the two celebrations are the same thing.

What do people do on Día de Muertos?

There are festivals and parades and people wear special costumes that represent the departed. Families go to the graveyards and talk to the spirits of their departed loved ones. They clean the graves and bring photos and favorite drinks and snacks and give them to the spirits to make them happy.

Why are the skulls painted like that?

When families go to the graves, they sometimes bring a skull made out of sugar. Mexico produces a lot of sugar, which makes it cheap and easy to work with. The decorations started with writing the name of a loved one on the skull.

Over time, people began to put more and more decorations on the skull, taking pride in how unique and different they could make the skull for their loved ones. Now, even though a lot of factories make the sugar skulls, the decorations have become a folk tradition of their own and the style is being spread to all kinds of other artworks.

Is it scary?

No. None of it is meant to be scary. Instead, it is meant to be a happy time of remembering and honoring everyone who has passed away.

There. Easy-ish answers to the four most common questions I got this week. I cribbed liberally from Wikipedia in putting these answers together, but I’ve put my full list of sources below in case you'd like to do your own reading. Which I recommend. This is a fascinating holiday that is just beginning to capture the world's imagination (see this week's Rabbit Hole for more on that) and there is so much more than I could put into the article above. Honestly, it kind of makes me wish I was teaching Social Studies...



*Obon is a Japanese holiday that my students are all intimately familiar with. They go to the cemeteries and clean the graves and put out flowers and sake and snacks and talk to the departed. Sound familiar? There are no costumes or sugar skulls and for some reason, they hold the festival in the beginning of August when it's hot and miserable outside, but it is otherwise very similar to Día de Muertos and other rememberence celebrations from the rest of the world.

**When I started writing the article, I referred to the holiday as La Dia de los Muertos, as I did in the title. It turns out, at least according to Wikipedia that this is a literal back-translation from English to Spanish. Native Spanish speakers instead use “Día de Muertos.” Except for the title, which I kept to make the topic familiar to English-language readers, I’ve tried to use the more authentic phrase.

What We’re Reading:

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers

by Mary Roach

Look, thinking about death is no fun. But, the bleak fact remains that someday, we’ll all have to come to terms with our own mortality. Mary Roach has helped me get (a very small bit of the way) there.

I’ve recommended books by Mary Roach before; she is a long-time favorite writer of mine. She has that thing that the best pop-writers have of being able to take intense, strange topics and make them decidedly human. Her books about space and food and sex are all amazingly well-researched books that present a broad spectrum of facts in a focussed, easily-accessible way.

Stiff is no different. Roach takes this most difficult of topics and makes it fun, funny, and, most importantly, humane. Because, let’s be honest, some pretty gross stuff happens to cadavers after they have ceased to be home to living beings. And it takes a lot of skill to discuss those…gross things…without losing track of the fact that they were once human beings. As I said before, Mary Roach is not without skill.

This is a fascinating book and one that is equally hard to read and hard to put down. Make sure you’re in the right mood to deal with death, for at least a little while, and then get settle in for some interesting science with a few laughs along the way.


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Down the Rabbit Hole:

Day of the Dead is slowly taking a position in pop culture alongside major players Halloween and Christmas. In 2014, Dreamworks Pictures and Guillermo Del Toro brought us Book of Life and just last year Pixar released Coco. Both movies feature imagery and stories related to Day of the Dead and are both simply gorgeous to watch.

A large part of what makes them so gorgeous is the attention paid to the folk-art traditions seen in traditional Day of the Dead decorations. And, in a case of pop eating itself, the movies lush imagery has, in turn, inspired young artists to seek inspiration from the same folk-art traditions that gave us the movies to begin with.

But I’m most interested in where Day of the Dead intersects with vinyl art toys. Here’s what I’m talking about:

There are so many more. Take a look through Pinterest, Instagram, or Tumblr and you’ll see hundreds of artists’ takes on Day of the Dead as expressed through vinyl art toys. It’s pretty incredible.

That’s it. Stay strong, stay healthy. Learn something.