or soulful seekers who wish to honor their Ancestors and Beloved Dead at this time of year and who also have young family members who may be frightened by some of the more macabre images running rampant, it can often feel like an either/or situation.
Either you give in to mass market Halloween trappings and squeeze your more soulful work and offrendas in sideways or you go all out in creating your ancestor altar and alienate your children in the process because really, why do you have to be SO weird?
Growing up in San Antonio and the Southwest where we celebrated Dia de los Muertos and honored our Ancestors before it was cool, the idea of hiding your practice away from your family members or not involving your younger family members in the celebrations strikes me as a bit odd.
After all, for millions of people world over, Dia de los Muertos (and the many other names it is known by) is a Feast Day during which we honor and commune with our Beloved Dead. We remember the loved ones (including animals) that we have lost – especially those we have lost in the past year – but we remember by having a party and of course we want to include our children in the festivities; this is a family affair!
The Feast Day/family celebration atmosphere often gets lost in translation when we talk about this holiday – there is more of a focus on the somber and scary and less of one on the bright, colorful, cheer that we experience when we take special time out of our day to honor the ones who have gone before. But I’m here to tell you that the Ancestors LOVE a good party and they love it when the little ones participate too. So here are some ideas to get the family party started:
1.) Make sugar skulls. There are molds that come complete with instructions and there are even kits. Traditionally the skulls are decorated with brightly colored icing and colorful pieces of foil. A piece of foil is affixed to the top of the skull’s head and you can write down the name of the ancestor you are honoring.
Of course, you’ll want to make a few extras so that the kiddos can nosh away. Traditionally you would take these skulls and offer them to your ancestors at the gravesides on November 2nd after taking a bite from each of them so that, for another year, the person named lives within you too.
2.) Create an Ancestor season tree. A season tree is an idea I got from a Waldorf craft book years ago – the general principle is that you place some bare branches into florist foam that is nestled into a pot, sprinkle dirt over the foam (plant some wheatgrass seeds in the dirt if you are really ambitious) and then decorate the tree as the seasons change with appropriate items.
The ancestor tree is very similar but on the branches we have affixed pictures of our ancestors. Near the bottom of the tree we start with the oldest ancestors and then move up in chronological order, the crown of the tree can feature pictures of current family members. This is a great craft that also segues naturally into discussions of family trees.
3.) Build an altar. Kids love altar building for the most part. A traditional Dia de los Muertos altar is established in the living room or the dining room where much of the family congregates naturally. Choose what ancestor(s) you would like to honor and remember that it is perfectly acceptable to honor a deceased pet. Decorate the altar with paper flowers, sugar skulls, and your ancestor tree. Make beeswax candles with a kit like this to light upon the altar. Include foods that the people or animals loved in life and objects that you inherited from them upon their passing.
You can also incorporate seasonal themes into this altar – our Dia de Los Muertos altar always has a pumpkin or two on it! Paper or cloth prayer flags and some fresh flowers, especially marigolds, are all traditionally included too.
4.) Bake some pan de muerto Day of the Dead Bread – it is delicious.
5.) Put the Feast back into feast day! Create a dinner on October 31st or November 1st that honors the traditional food ways your family’s ancestors practiced. This is a great project that you can actually start early in October – get your kids to do some research into who their way back people were, where they lived, what crops they grew and what animals they domesticated. Many of the deepest rituals happen around food.
6.) Go visit the graveyard together. Demystify places of death by going to visit them together in broad daylight. Graveyard are fascinating places for children and in my experience, children are much more frank and understanding about death then they are given credit for.
7.) Speaking of graveyards, here’s a bonus: read the Graveyard book together – perfect for the season!
8.) And if you are in the mood for a family-friendly film about this time of year, I cannot recommend the Book of Life highly enough!
No matter how you celebrate enjoy the season or as we say down here: Feliz dia de los Muertos!