Ways to Embrace Dia de los Muertos Traditions with Your Family

Not sure how your family can embrace Dia de los Muertos traditions? Colorful and whimsical calaveras, those smiling sugar skulls, are seemingly everywhere this time of year. Those and the well-dressed catrinas, the also smiling skeletons, are a sure sign of Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, a family-friendly holiday that can connect you to your roots.

I have to admit that if you had asked me a dozen years ago to explain the Mexican tradition I would not have known how. But that changed in 2008. My sweet baby brother Todd died that spring after a short battle with cancer. He was only 25. My family was devastated. The pain and grief were all-consuming.

By the time the kids went back to school and the days began to get shorter, my younger sister, Tiffany, and I began to dread what was normally a joyous time: the holidays. How could we possibly get through them with the now empty seat at the table?

We found the answer in Día de los Muertos, which is celebrated November 1 and 2, days that coincide with the Catholic calendar’s All Saints Day and All Souls Day. In the Mexican tradition, families and friends honor and celebrate the lives of those loved ones who have passed on to the next life, rooted in the belief that death is not the true end but merely an end to the current life.

We’re part Mexican, but we didn’t celebrate the holiday or hold those beliefs.

I hated focusing on the loss. I wanted to hang tight to the memories that helped me remember my brother and who he was in life. He was funny, a real prankster, and generous with his time and limited college money. He believed there was no reason to eat a slice of pie at Bill Miller’s when you could order the whole thing for yourself. And at 6′ 8″, he stood out in a crowd and was quick to offer a hug or a hand to help.

One of my family’s altars.

Day of the Dead celebrations often include a procession or party, but two key elements that were easy for us to adopt were the home altar and pan de muerto, or bread of the dead. We did our research and learned all we could about the tradition and then we built our altars. Building altars in our respective homes allowed us to look back and celebrate instead of mourning.

illustration showing the levels of an altar

Jump ahead to today, and I now look at my seven-year-old. It’s easy to get lost in thoughts of sadness about all that my brother missed out on and all that my son will never know. But the 2017 Disney smash Coco brought the lively and fun tradition to children all around the world, making it a good place to start with your own children. Plus, the main character, Miguel, reminds me so much of my son!

So how do you talk to your children about Day of the Dead, especially at a time when skeletons and Catrina-themed papel picado are everywhere? And how can you involve them in your own celebrations?

  1. Make it fun. Pick a night to watch Coco together. Make it a mother/kids movie date or a family affair. Think PJs, popcorn, and snuggling on the couch. Stream it through Disney+, but trust me, you’re going to want to buy it. YouTube also offers the 2013 award-winning short film “Dia De Los Muertos” by Team Whoo Kazoo. It’s a good alternative for kids who don’t have the attention span for Coco.
  2. Use the movie. Use the film as a starting point to talk about your own family members who have passed away and decide how you want to approach talking about death. For instance, if you believe in heaven, it can be part of the discussion.
  3. Build a home altar. Review the holiday’s traditions and help your little ones understand the home altar (and how Miguel’s included food offerings, candles, photographs, and marigolds). Build your own altar at home and have the kids help you gather candles, photographs of your loved ones, and foods and drinks departed loved ones may have enjoyed. It’s a great opportunity to share your memories of that person and what made them special. I started showing photos of my brother to my son before he was able to talk. He knows who his Uncle Todd was and that he is no longer with us.

    Another altar we’ve made in our home.
  4. Make your own sugar skulls. The molds can be found at Target, Hobby Lobby, and Michael’s. And buy or bake pan de muerto, the orange or anise-flavored traditional Mexican bread that can be found at La Panadería, your favorite H-E-B, or check out these other options.
  5. Explain the custom. Distinguish between the scary fun of Halloween and the celebration and remembrance of Day of the Dead. It’s a really special holiday that isn’t scary at all.

No matter how you celebrate Día de los Muertos, make it part of your family traditions. What I love most about Day of the Dead is that it’s rooted in love. It’s about culture and food and brings people together. Most importantly, it’s about family! Hug your kids and appreciate life while at the same time celebrating and remembering those who have died. Your kids are never too young to know their family’s roots.


Tricia Schwennesen

An experienced storyteller and editor, Tricia Schwennesen has been the associate editor at the San Antonio Business Journal and an award-winning web producer and news editor at Texas Public Radio. She also worked for her hometown newspaper, the San Antonio Express-News, for 10 years. A proud graduate of the University of Oregon, she is also a former Knight Fellow at the University of Missouri and a member of the San Antonio Association of Hispanic Journalists and the Unity: Journalists of Color Mentorship Program. A San Antonio native who first stepped into a newsroom at San Antonio College’s The Ranger, Tricia has dabbled in photography, enjoys scrapbooking as a form of personal storytelling, and can’t live without her son, Teodoro, and a good cup of coffee.

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