Skulls and Dancing Skeletons: Celebrating Days of the Dead
As Americans prepare for Halloween at the end of October, the people
of Mexico turn their attention to the traditions surrounding the
Days of the Dead, or Los Días de los Muertos, when
it is believed that the souls of the departed will return to earth
for one night to visit their loved ones. While some people call
this festival time “Day of the Dead,” the plural form
better describes the holiday as it spans several days.
The preparations surrounding the celebration of the Days of the
Dead involve cooking special foods and sweets such as the spicy
chocolate and chile sauce called mole and the slightly
sweet pan de muerto or “bread of the dead”
that is shaped like skulls or bones and decorated with colored sugar.
The most common image of the Days of the Dead is the skull or calavera.
Sugar skulls, decorated with brightly colored icing and bits of
colored foil, are popular gifts for friends and sweethearts. These
skulls do not “jinx” a person as you might expect, but
are more similar to valentines, symbolizing a relationship that
will last for eternity.
One of the most important aspects of the Days of the Dead for many
families is the creation of a memorial altar for the departed, known
as an ofrenda. The scent of the marigold or cempasúchil
is believed to help the souls find their way home, so the altars
are lavishly decorated with these flowers, as well as fruits, sugar
skulls, pan de muerto, and cut paper banners called papel
picado. Photos of the deceased are placed on the altars along
with items that they enjoyed in life.
The highlight of the Days of the Dead celebration is the cemetery
vigil. The people of Mexico gather at the cemeteries to clean and
repaint the grave markers and tombs, and decorate them with fresh
flowers. In the evening, families light candles around the graves
and burn copal, a strong incense that is also believed
to help lead the souls home. Family members make a special feast
of loved ones’ favorite foods such as tamales and
mole, which they bring to the cemetery and enjoy in the
company of their family and friends. The vigil lasts through the
night, and even the children are allowed to stay in the cemetery
of the Dead by Stevie Mack and Amy Scott Metcalfe (2006:
CRIZMAC Art and Cultural Education Materials, Inc.)
Adapted from questionArte
posters by Marilyn Stewart PhD, published by CRIZMAC
What is the purpose of artwork?
What is the purpose of works of art inspired by and made for the
Days of the Dead celebration?
Is the art made for the Days of the Dead supposed to make people
feel a certain way? Teach an important lesson? Be used for decoration?
Be used as part of a ceremony or celebration?
What does artwork made for the Days of the Dead tell us about the
time and place it was made?
From the Teacher’s Guide of questionArte
Talking about particular works of art, as well as about art in general,
can be the most satisfying activity associated with learning about
art and art-makers. Students gain new insights as they examine and
investigate works of art and offer possible interpretations about
meaning. Students learn from each other in the process of discussing
important questions about art. They learn about their own art-making
as they consider what they have accomplished through their efforts.