An honest take on life and parenthood

Day of the Dead 2015

on November 17, 2015

The Pooh and I in front of the Pre-K Day of the Dead altar in 2014

I am American-raised but Mexican born, so whenever I have the chance, I share Mexican culture with the Pooh. When she entered Pre-K last year, I approached her teachers about teaching a lesson about el Dia de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead, one of my favorite Mexican holidays. Fortunately, her teachers were more than happy to cooperate.

Day of the Dead is celebrated over November 1st and 2nd every year in Mexico, in conjunction with All Souls Day and All Saints Day.

This is no coincidence. The Day of the Dead combines the traditions of the Aztecs, Maya, and other pre-Hispanic people with Catholic traditions. Native people saw death as part of the process of life, and believed that dead people moved on to a different world, similar to the beliefs of the ancient Egyptians. They honored the dead and believed that they visited the world of the living on certain days of the year. For the Aztecs, it was around August, the ninth month of the Aztec calendar.

When the Spanish priests arrived, they tried to convert the people to Catholicism and introduced the practice of visiting graves and cemeteries, as well as the observance of All Souls Day and All Saints Day in November. Meanwhile, Italian missionaries brought sugar art to the New World, which was adopted as a less expensive way to adorn churches. European Catholics and pre-Hispanic people combined their traditions to create the Day of the Dead as we know it.

Today, the Day of the Dead is celebrated in central and southern Mexico over two nights, when people believe that the spirits of loved ones come back to earth and enjoy time with the living along, with favorite foods and drinks. Temporary altars, or ofrendas, are built in many homes, and families go to cemeteries to decorate graves with candles, marigolds, and mementos, eating there and talking with the dead.

November 1 celebrates infants and children who have died, and November 2 honors adults. It is a happy, colorful holiday, filled with jokes and funny images of skeletons dancing, playing, working, and causing mischief. While the holiday does have its sentimental side (we all miss the people who have gone before us), it is a wonderful way to remember and celebrate the people who are no longer with us.

This year marked the second year in a row that I taught the Pooh and her classmates about the Day of the Dead. I worked with her Spanish teacher, Sra. Lupe Vivier, to create a plan to introduce the holiday to the little ones.

Both years, we divided the lesson into two parts over two weeks.

Lesson 1: During this lesson, I donned a beautiful Mexican dress or blouse, explained the holiday to the kids, and read a picture book. Both years, Sr. Vivier and I chose Conchita and Rosita, by Eric Gonzalez and Erich Haeger, of Muertoons fame. This rhyming book features the story of twin sisters, one alive and one dead, and their journeys to be reunited on the Day of the Dead. It is long for typical four and five year olds, so I paraphrased, but if your child has a longer attention span, you can read the entire book to them.


We also showed the kids a video. In pre-K, Sra. Vivier showed them a video of dancing skeletons, which made them laugh and reinforced the idea that Day of the Dead was not a scary holiday. In Kindergarten, she showed them a lovely short cartoon film, called simply Dia de los Muertos. This short cartoon from Whoo Kazoo (link at end of post) is an award-winning, wordless three minute film that conveys the idea of the holiday in all of its festiveness, along with the tinge of longing that always accompanies it. Finally, we made some crafts with the kids, including easy calavera (skull) masks and tissue paper flowers.

In between the first and second lessons, Sra. Vivier and I constructed a Day of the Dead altar in the classroom, complete with pictures, a Virgin of Guadalupe candle, marigolds, salt, incense, skeletons, masks, colorful Mexican textiles, papel picado (colorful block cut tissue paper), and even a sugar skull.

Lesson 2: We started this lesson by pointing out the altar to the kids. We explained that you put items on the altar to honor your ancestors and your pets who have died, and that you placed their favorite foods, drinks, and toys there for their enjoyment when they returned to visit.


To illustrate the point and to keep it light for the kids, I had the Pooh place a picture of her beloved cat, Zeezu, on the altar. Zeezu died two years ago. Then, another child placed a can of Friskies Poultry Platter, Zeezu’s favorite food, next to the picture. Finally, another child placed a mouse toy next to the cat food. With that, it clicked, and the kids understood both the holiday and the intention behind the altar.


Finally, as a special treat, I made and brought Mexican hot chocolate and pan de muerto (bread of the dead) to class for the kids to sample.


What is pan de muerto? It is special bread made in Mexican bakeries for a short period of time once a year. It is a sweet, buttery, orange-scented bread, reminiscent of brioche, and tastes wonderful alone or with a cup of Mexican hot chocolate.


Mexican hot chocolate is spiced with cinnamon and vanilla. It traditionally comes in round tablets and is cooked on the stove with hot milk and frothed with a special wooden tool called a molinillo. Fortunately, many American grocery stores now stock Mexican hot chocolate in powdered form, which you can mix into a cup of hot milk. Abuelita and Ibarra are two popular brands, and here you see Abuelita.


The kids loved the bread and hot chocolate, and came back for several more helpings of bread, which pleased me immensely.

The Pooh was so inspired this year that we came home and constructed an altar to Zeezu in her bedroom, which you can see here.


In closing, I’d like to share a lovely Aztec poem about death that I discovered this year as I prepared for the Pooh’s class. While I did not share it with the kids, I will share it with you. I will close this post with it. Here it is:

“It is perhaps true

One lives on earth.

But not forever on earth,

Just a little while here.

Although it is jade,

It breaks.

Although it is gold,

It breaks.

Although it is

Quetzal feathers,

It tears.

Not forever on earth,

Just a little while here.”

-Nahuatl poem


Day of the Dead (El Dia de los Muertos) short film on YouTube by Whoo Kazoo, 2013

One response to “Day of the Dead 2015

  1. Your friend G says:

    Very sweet – and thanks for posting that lovely video. What a wonderful impact on a group of children. Also interesting to think about how Day of the Dead (like Halloween) is the mirror to Easter – acknowledging the end of the growing season – and how the Aztecs weren’t too far off in tying their holiday to the autumnal equinox.


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