I have been fascinated by the history, culture, and traditions of the Mexican holiday Dia de los Muertos since I was a teenager. In English, it translates to Day of the Dead.
I majored in Spanish at Arizona State University. Mexican culture is ever present in Phoenix, and all over the state, from amazing food to lively celebrations. I fell in love with all of it and miss it equally as much.
Celebrated on November 1st – 2nd every year, Dia de los Muertos is often conflated with Halloween as they coincide closely together. It is not, as some believe, Mexico’s version of Halloween — although there are some minor similarities (i.e. costumes, candies, and skulls).
It is believed that the veil between the living and the dead is briefly lifted, reuniting families with their dearly departed in two days of celebration.
November 1st is when the children return to their families, and November 2nd is when the adults show up for the festivities. Flowers, candles, food, drink, photos, and gifts are placed on graves and altars (ofrendas). The ofrenda (offering) is built on the principles of the four elements: Earth (food, specifically bread), Wind (paper banners), Fire (candles), and Water (placed in a cup or pitcher).
History of Dia de los Muertos
The origin of the Day of the Dead celebration dates back 3,000 years to the Aztec and Nahua people in pre-Colombian Mexico. The ritual known as Miccaihuitl was presided over by the goddess Mictecacihuatl, the lady of the dead, and was practiced by honoring the deceased with offerings and celebrated for an entire month. It was also a time for harvesting as seasons transitioned.
Fast forward to the 1500s and the arrival of Spanish conquistadors who brought Catholicism with them. The Church rejected the Aztec ritual and condensed it down to two days, All Saints Day and All Souls Day, to fall within the Catholic calendar.
In contemporary times, the Mexican people blended the ancient and traditional rituals with those brought by the Spanish and made the holiday uniquely theirs. Today you will find large-scale parades and celebrations in Mexico City, Oaxaca, Michoacan, and all over the country.
Unfortunately, there are not a lot of events and celebrations for Dia de los Muertos locally in Charleston. However, don’t let that deter you. Learn about the holiday by doing your own research, and get the kiddos involved! Here are a few fun, easy, and inexpensive ideas!
You can create your own family tradition by setting up an ofrenda, personal to family members who have passed on. All you will need is a table (or any flat surface), flowers — either real or silk (traditionally marigolds), calaveras (skulls), papel picado (paper banner), candles, pictures of dearly departed loved ones, and Pan de Muerto. You can get as creative as you want!
El Molino Supermarket in West Ashley and North Charleston has everything you need to make “un ofrenda tradicional” and you would be supporting an amazing local business! Pro tip: get some birria tacos while you’re there. You won’t regret it!
Pan de Muerto
Do your kiddos love helping in the kitchen? You can put their helper skills to work and make a yummy Pan de Muerto (Bread of the Dead). It is a sweet bread, akin to a pastry, and delicious. The kids will love it! Check out this traditional recipe from Mely Martinez of Mexico in My Kitchen. She also provides some in-depth information on the history of Pan de Muerto.
Sugar Skull Face Painting
Grab some non-toxic paints and help your kiddos do a Catrina or Catrin face paint! There are tons of tutorials on YouTube from easy to extremely complex. They are stunning, and your kids will love being made into a skeleton! You can talk to them about the history of the Catrina/Catrin as well!
Family Movie Night
Who doesn’t love a family movie night? A great one to add to your queue is Disney’s Coco. It is an adorably sweet and visually stunning movie about a Mexican family set during Dia de los Muertos. I watch it every year and am so excited to show it to my little guy for the first time! Grab some popcorn, maybe some dulces (candies) or chocolates from your Halloween loot, and snuggle up for a fun family night in!