What is Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) and how is it celebrated in the Fox Cities?

Dia de los Muertos

Have you seen colorful sugar skulls and artwork depicting Dia de los Muertos? Have you wondered what this tradition and cultural holiday all meant?

Learning about other cultures increases cultural sensitivity, helps you reevaluate biases, and become more empathetic. 

Diversity activities can teach young children to respect and celebrate the differences in all people. The new experiences from learning about different cultural aspects help kids to see that we’re all humans despite differences in the way that we look, dress, eat, and celebrate. This exploration can take shape through games, books, movies, and community events that explore all types of differences including race, religion, gender, language, religion, and traditions.

PennState Extension
Dia de los Muertos
Students at Appleton Bilingual School

What is Día de los Muertos or Day of the Dead?

Dia de los Muertos or Day of the Dead, is a celebration honoring our ancestors. In Mexico, Dia de los Muertos is celebrated on October 31, November 1 and 2. Although seen primarily as a Mexican holiday, it is also celebrated in many communities in the United States where there is a large Mexican-American population, and to a lesser extent, it is also celebrated in some parts of Latin America.

This holiday is celebrated cheerfully, and although it happens on dates close to All Saints’ Day, and All Souls Day, instead of feeling fearful of malevolent spirits, the mood on the day of the dead is much more relaxed. Similar to part of the origin of Halloween, the Day of the Dead celebration has a greater emphasis on honoring the lives of the departed. The origins of the Day of the Dead in Mexico can be traced back to the time of the Mesoamerican Indians, such as the Aztecs, Mayas, Purepechas, Nahuas, and Totonacas. The rituals that celebrate the lives of the ancestors were performed by these civilizations for at least the last 3,000 years.

Day of the Dead
An Ofrenda

In general, this celebration includes practices such as decorating tombs in cemeteries and dedicating altars (in homes or on tombstones) that include various elements to lead the souls back to the world of the living. It is said that the bright color of the flowers of cempasúchil represents the way that the dead must follow; the candlelight and warmth illuminate them and accompanies them through the darkness of the grave, while the succulent scent of the dishes prepared and placed in the offerings “nourishes” them while recalling the importance of sharing food with the family. Offerings to the dead are carefully prepared with the deceased’s favorite delicacies and are placed around the family altar and tomb, amidst flowers, decoration with paper, photographs, toys or any souvenir in remembrance of our loved ones.

sugar skulls day of the dead

10 Things to Remember about Day of the Dead

  1. Day of the Dead and Halloween are not the same. It is NOT Mexico’s Halloween.
  2. It is traditionally celebrated on November 1st and 2nd.
  3. The Day of the Dead is a time to remember family and friends who have died.
  4. It is not a sad holiday but a festive celebration. It is bright and colorful.
  5. Traditional elements include skulls, marigolds, butterflies, pan de muerto, candles, pictures… The main colors are purple and gold.
  6. As a part of the Day of the Dead celebration, families build altars in their homes for loved ones who have died. The ofrenda is the central component. These ofrendas are not meant to worship the dead but to remember and honor the dead.
  7. Every ofrenda also includes the four elements: water, wind, earth and fire. Water is left in a pitcher so the spirits can quench their thirst. Papel picado, or traditional paper banners, represent the wind. Earth is represented by food, especially bread. Candles are often left in the form of a cross to represent the cardinal directions, so the spirits can find their way.
  8. Sometimes Day of the Dead can be celebrated in cemeteries. It is customary to visit a loved ones grave.
  9. Calaveras are decorated skulls traditionally made out of sugar and used to decorate. The skull is used not as a morbid symbol but rather as a whimsical reminder of the cycle of life, which is why they are brightly decorated.
  10. Like any special occasion in Mexico, food plays a vital role. Pan de Muerto delicious loaf of sweet bread, coated in sugar, and decorated to resemble a pile of bones.

Books about Day of the Dead

For the Love of Spanish – Día de los Muertos Spanish Picture Book List – This awesome list includes summaries and ages for books. 

  • Día de los Muertos by Roseanne Greenfield Thong Illustrated by Carlos Ballesteros (Ages 4-8)
  • The Day of the Dead – El Día de los Muertos: A Bilingual Celebration by Bob Barner Illustrated by Teresa Mlawer (Ages 4-8)
  • Ghosts by Raina Telgemeier (Ages 8-12)
  • The Boxcar Children: The Day of the Dead Mystery by Gertrude Chandler Warner (Ages 7-10)

Songs to Sing

Videos & Movies

  • Coco (2018) – Rated PG (for thematic elements) 
  • The Book of Life (2015) – Rated PG (for mild action, rude humor, some thematic elements and brief scary images)


Crafts & Art Projects

Fox Cities Bakery with Pan de Muertos

Pan de Muertos at Alegria Mexicana in Appleton

Fox Cities Day of the Dead Events

  • FREE Community Día de los Muertos Celebration, The Oshkosh Public Museum
    • Saturday, October 28, 2023, from 11 am – 4 pm
    • Visitors can share in this traditional celebration by viewing the community altar, making crafts, and watching performances by Ballet Folklórico Xanharati dancers and mariachi.
  • FREE showings of Disney Pixar’s “Coco,” Time Community Theater, Downtown Oshkosh
    • Saturday, October 28, 2023
    • Spanish language matinee at 2 pm, and an English language showing at 7 pm. All events are free and open to the public.
  • Día de los Muertos Community Celebration, Elisha D. Smith Public Library, Menasha
    • Saturday, October 28, 2023: 1 pm
    • FREE family event, community altar, pan de muertos, magic show, live music, and more.

Wisconsin Day of the Dead Events

  • Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), Mitchell Park Domes, Milwaukee
    • A cultural event, including a Mariachi Band, Día de los Muertos dancers, local artists, crafts, ofrendas (alters in honor of loved ones), and food vendors.
    • Friday, October 27, 2023, 6 – 9 pm
  • Día de Los Muertos Ofrendas exhibit at Latino Arts in Milwaukee featuring installations from The Mexican Consulate, the University School of Milwaukee, and other schools and local artists!

Appleton Bilingual School

This article is a collaboration with Appleton Bilingual School, a K-6 public charter school of the Appleton Area School District. The school develops academic excellence and language fluency in Spanish and English, builds cross-cultural relationships, and nurtures an enthusiasm for learning for students to achieve future educational and career success and to become active citizens in local and global communities.

Appleton Bilingual School (Located within Zion Lutheran)
912 N Oneida St, Appleton, Wisconsin

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