Every culture has a different way of viewing and dealing with death. And while Día de los Muertos, or The Day of the Dead, honors those who have passed, it also embraces death as an inevitability that shouldn't be ignored. Through the use of catrinas (elegant skeleton figures), music, dance, poetry, flowers, candles, and more, death and life become interwoven. So while death used to scare me as a child, as a parent I love celebrating Día de los Muertos with my child.
Día de los Muertos is mainly celebrated in the central and southern parts of Mexico, but people all over the world observe the holiday, particularly in areas that have a substantial Mexican diaspora. Many Mexicans and Mexican ex-pats take the time every Nov. 1 and 2 to celebrate the holiday, creating home altars with candles, flowers, and foods while sharing stories about their lost loved ones. Some people attend massive celebrations hosted by cities, while others prefer to spend a more intimate time speaking with their dearly departed.
And since the United States is a country of immigrants, and is rich with the cultures of countless ethnic groups and countries, plenty of moms in the states are doing what they can to pass along the traditions of Día de los Muertos to their children. From attending city-wide parties and parades, to visiting a loved one’s grave to clean it up and leave some gifts behind, parents have unique ways of keeping the spirit of their ancestors alive. So with that in mind, here's how the following moms are passing Día de los Muertos on to their kids:
“I have a small space in my home where I have pictures of my mom and my great grandma. I keep a rosary beside each of them, in particular because my great grandma would pray the rosary every morning — it’s one of the things I remember most about her. Beside my [mom's picture], I have a little note pad of notes and ingredients she wrote of all the delicious things she would bake. She was an aspiring pastry chef, who had her career cut short when she was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer.
The display is there all year round. However, during the month of October and leading up to Día de los Muertos, my daughter and I reminisce about the times we shared with my mom, and I share stories with her about my great grandma, whom she never met. For the holiday, we also attend a Día De Los Muertos event in Toronto, and as a family we celebrate with others in our community.”
“We go to the Day of the Dead festival at Hollywood Forever cemetery in Los Angeles. It’s really beautiful, and the altars are especially meaningful. We also read a lot of books about Day of the Dead, like Clatter Bash — that’s a favorite of my 6-year-old.”
“I am a member of the San Gabriel Mission Indians. Many generations of my family are buried in the old cemetery. I have many childhood memories of Día de los Muertos. I remember the way the grounds looked with all of the candles glowing and the way the fresh flowers smelled. We would help clean the grave stones, [my grandmother] would tell us stories about her mother and others buried there, and we arranged crosses of flowers. Gramma showed us how to light the candles so that the breeze would not blow them out. It was a special time for us, not sad, but a celebration of the person’s life. She died in 1979.
We moved out of San Gabriel and didn't go to the cemetery very often. When I became a grandmother, I wanted to share this with my babies, now 3, 6, and 8. Día de los Muertos had been gaining popularity as part of Halloween. I felt the need to teach them the difference between the celebrations.
We went to the nursery for flowers and the panaderia [bakery] for pan de muerto. We entered the old San Gabriel cemetery and laid out a small blanket. I showed them some family photos and shared some funny stories about their great gramma and great-great gramma. The memories always bring tears to my eyes.This led to a discussion of happy and sad tears. We cleaned headstones, laid out flowers and small plates of pan, and lit candles. It was sad to see but the tradition seems to be fading. Upon returning home, they told my daughter and her husband about our evening, and how nana promised to take them again next year.
Last year they asked me to tell their friends about Día de los Muertos. I was excited to present our traditions to their kindergarten and second grade classes. They all seemed to enjoy it and the pan dulce too. This year they want me to paint their faces. I've already bought the face paint.”
“My mom is a Spanish high school teacher and she put up an altar for my great grandma that passed away two years ago. We eat pan dulce and since we usually made the food my grandma liked for the altar, we eat that and talk about fond memories of her. Since we are not in Mexico, we can't go visit her grave like they do over there.”
“We have an altar for our passed loved ones, pan de muerto of course, and sugar skulls. We lived in Redwood City, California for a couple of years and would dress up and paint our faces. It was a beautiful celebration with catrinas and altars and related crafts for kids. Very reminiscent of a Michoacan celebration. Worth attending if ever given the opportunity!”
“My mom’s side of the family never celebrated it. I think it’s such a beautiful way to remember our loved ones. So a few years ago, I started celebrating it with my family. There were a couple kids’ movies about Día de los Muertos in the past few years, and that has gotten my daughter, 12, in the spirit of celebrating with me. I have an altar set up with some of the traditional things, including the photos, the pan de muerto, sugar skulls, candles, etc. I also have a string of lights that look like chile peppers and have those plugged in every evening. We tell stories about our deceased loved ones, like. ‘Remember when Uncle Hector did this,’ and so forth. My husband (who is not Latino) has never known anything about Día de los Muertos before having met me, has grown fond of our tradition, and recently said he especially enjoys the music I play to ‘help set the scene’ as he puts it.”
“When we lived in the U.S. (Chicago and Houston), we would always visit a Day of the Dead event, and teach our kids about the holiday through the different altars and exhibits. For example, in Chicago there is the National Museum of Mexican Art, with beautiful displays and activities for kids (like decorating sugar skulls). In Houston, we used to go to Multicultural Education and Counseling through the Arts (MECA) for their annual Día de los Muertos exhibit and celebration.
In Mérida, Mexico, there are so many events related to the Mayan tradition of Hanal Pixán (food for the spirits). At school, the kids help to contribute to altars (bringing certain foods or flowers) and each grade makes an altar from a different state in Mexico. Then we have an all day event where the kids dress in traditional Mayan clothes and visit each altar, learning about the symbols and significance of each item. Our school is out Nov. 1 and 2 for the actual holiday. In the city, we have many events such as the night parade, 'Paseo de las Ánimas,' from the cemetery to the San Juan area. Everyone has their face painted as catrinas, and many are carrying candles. There are many places around the city to view the altars, such as churches, plazas, and parks. We eat the traditional food, which is a special type of tamal that is buried in the ground called ‘pib.’ There are other events for families such as a puppet show, an event to watch traditional dances, and more.”