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Laughing 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 until daybreak.

Source: Days of the Dead by Stevie Mack and Amy Scott Metcalfe (2006: CRIZMAC Art and Cultural Education Materials, Inc.)

Discussion Questions:
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.