Day of the Dead Masks

The central symbol in the Day of the Dead festivities is la muerte, or a skull.  Celebrants wear Day of the Dead masks made of wood, and they dance to honor their deceased relatives. Learn more about the tradition of Day of the Dead masks, and consider making your own.

The History of Day of the Dead Masks
This practice dates from the Aztecs and other Meso-American civilizations that used skulls to symbolize death and rebirth as well as to honor the dead. These Day of the Dead masks range from elaborate and expensive pieces of art to a child's craft project.

During Dia de los Muerte, many shops will feature folk art, created by local craftsmen, and skulls will also appear in this art. Most Day of the Dead folk art portrays cavorting skeletons, or calacas, frequently shown with foliage or marigold leaves. Calacas are generally depicted as joyous rather than gruesome or scary, as is the custom in some cultures.

You'll see calacas in Day of the Dead folk art wearing bright clothes, playing, dancing and singing to remind the living to embrace death instead of fearing it and to anticipate a happy afterlife. This joyous view of death emphasizes the Mexican belief that the dead do not like to be thought of in sorrow and that the afterlife is a joyous place.

Jose Guadalupe Posada
Modern Day of the Dead folk art is largely influenced by the work of Mexican press artist, Jose Guadalupe Posada in the early 1900s. Posada depicted both the rich and the humble as skeletal caricatures going about daily business. His aim was to illustrate that all people, great or small, eventually reach equality in death. One figure in particular, dressed in a plumed hat and fancy dress and known as "Katarina," is popular and present on many home altars.

Make Your Own Day of the Dead Mask
If you take a look at Posada's work and other Day of the Dead folk art, you'll have a good idea of how Day of the Dead masks can look. A fun activity for a Day of the Dead party would be to have guests draw their own skulls on paper plates, cutting out holes for eyes and attaching string to the back for wearing.

Adults and older kids may want to create their own papier-mâché style masks by covering their faces with petroleum jelly, applying wet Rigid Wrap plaster gauze strips to their faces in layers and letting them dry. Then, they can paint the masks however they choose.

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In Mexico, a way to honor dead relatives is through the preparing and eating of Day of the Dead food. The Day of the Dead is an event in which families celebrate the return of the spirits of deceased ancestors. To create an atmosphere that any wandering spirit would love to visit, families often prepare dishes enjoyed by their loved ones.

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Day of the Dead altars are set up by families in Mexico to honor family members who have died. These altars are typically bright and colorful and are not designed out of sadness or mourning, but out of joy.

Dia de los Muertos' history reflects early Catholic practices, but the holiday, also known as the "Day of the Dead," has emerged as an Aztec-influenced Mexican celebration with a distinct set of unique traditions. Born and based in Mexico, Dia de los Muertos is also celebrated by those of Mexican descent throughout the world.

Her face is one you'd never forget, and she goes by many names like La Catrina, la Flaca, la Huesuda, la Pelona (Fancy, Skinny, Bony, Baldy). No, she's not a model! In Mexico, she's known as La Muerte, Death.

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