One of the best aspects of being part of a cultural exchange program is learning about new holidays and traditions from around the world! It helps our children and families burst out of their American bubble for a brief time—and opens our eyes to the way the rest of the world celebrates milestones and extra special days in their lives.
If you’re hosting a Mexican au pair—or are generally familiar with Mexican culture—then you surely know about “Dia de los Muertos” aka “Day of the Dead.” Taking place every year from October 31st to November 2nd, Day of the Dead coincides with Halloween in America, meaning that the imagery is often intertwined everywhere from front lawns to costume stores.
Curious to learn more about the holiday? And how host families and au pairs are celebrating? Keep reading!
Day of the Dead: history & traditions
This colorful, multi-day holiday is celebrated throughout Mexico (particularly in the Central and Southern regions) and serves as a chance for family and friends to gather in honor of their loved ones who have passed. As a way to support and celebrate the spiritual journey of those who have passed, living friends and family will pray for them, lay out food, beverages and flowers for them, and will remember them fondly through shared memories and stories.
While to an outsider, this may seem like a day of sadness, Mexicans see the holiday as a true celebration and a dedication to the deceased—because to them, Dia de los Muertos is a chance for their late loved ones to awake and join in the celebrations with the living! Even if this is the first time you’re reading about Day of the Dead, you have probably seen items and traditions related to the holiday everywhere—including in the media! For all the Disney and Pixar fans out there (or really, anyone with a movie-loving child), you’ve probably seen or heard of the hit 2017 movie Coco. This animated movie is based on Dia de los Muertos!
You’ve also probably seen sugar skulls before—whether in candy form, decoration form, or even in the form of some unique and skilled makeup application. Called “calaveras” in Spanish, sugar skulls are iconic symbols of this Mexican holiday. They’re elaborately decorated representations of skulls, often featuring flowers, animals or other decorations—and they embody the colorful and celebratory feeling of Dia de los Muertos.
Day of the Dead: host families & au pairs
Host families around the nation are embracing Day of the Dead! Why? Because their au pairs hail from Mexico, and bring the traditions of this holiday with them to the U.S.! And au pairs love to introduce this beloved holiday to their second families in America. The holiday is an especially sacred one for people of Mexican heritage, because it’s rooted in the importance of family and keeping memories alive.
Take it from Ariadna, a Mexican au pair living with her host family in Colorado: “For me, the most memorable tradition that I think I shared with them was Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead). I explained what that date means to us in my culture, and so my host mom bought all the necessary stuff to celebrate—food, flowers, everything! The host kids helped me to decorate; it was amazing to share this with them. Around this time, the Disney movie Coco was in theaters, so they bought tickets for us all to go and watch it together. They let me invite a friend, and the whole thing was so special for me, because thanks to that movie and our celebrations, I think they understand me more—and understand more what Día de los Muertos means.” — Ariadna, au pair from Mexico
Day of the Dead: arts & crafts
Looking for some fun ways to introduce your kids to Dia de los Muertos—or to help your au pair feel celebrated at this time of year? Here are some great ideas!
- Paint your faces like sugar skulls. There are tons of easy-to-replicate makeup tutorials online (check out YouTube or even just a quick google search); not only will the kids love the challenge of making themselves look like skulls, they’ll appreciate the spookiness around the Halloween season, too!
- Make your own ofrenda. An ofrenda (or in English, an altar) is traditionally set up either at a loved one’s grave in the cemetery or at one’s home. It’s a place to celebrate the life of the departed by laying out their favorite foods, flowers, photos, memorabilia, etc. Try making a special altar of your own with sugar skulls, flowers, and Mexican cookies!
- Bake some Mexican sweet treats. Food is an important part of any celebration! And it’s always fun to try interesting new cuisines from around the world. So for Dia de los Muertos, why not have the kids (and maybe your au pair!) help make some cookies? Colorful conchas (or Mexican sweet bread rolls) are a classic for this time of year.
- Please dress up with flower headbands. Women all over Mexico celebrate Dia de los Muertos by putting flowers in their hair—often in elaborate patterns and in great quantities! One way to replicate this festive headpiece is by hot gluing or pinning fake flowers to a headband. Combine this with sugar skull makeup and you’re in business!