Traditional Day of the Dead Projects

a woman in a day of the dead costume

If you’re not Mexican or Mexican-American, of if you didn't grow up in an area with a significant Latin population, you may not have celebrated Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead. For those who have heard of it and have referred to it as Mexican Halloween, it holds a very different (and more respected) place in Latin American culture. Spooky and kooky? Definitely not.

Dia de los Muertos has nothing to do with All Hallow's Eve, which originated as a Celtic ritual to ward off evil spirits, and though you may be familiar with the colorful skulls and skeletons often associated with it, the celebration is about so much more. Honored in many countries with large Latin American populations, it takes place over the course of two days, (or more depending on the region) usually November 1st and 2nd. The first night honors babies and children, the second focuses on adults.

These rituals are a reminder that the end is just as important as the beginning, because ultimately death signifies the continuing of life. Rituals honoring the dead are also followed in other cultures, such as Obon in Japan, the Hungry Ghost Month for Buddhists and Taoists, and Pchum Ben in Cambodia, among many others.

Check out some of the craft projects long associated with the Day of the Dead below. It's always good to celebrate cultures of all kinds! Just remember to respect the ancient history of these traditions, especially if you didn't grow up with them.

Bring Home Some Marigolds

The brightly colored flowers of Targetas erectas are tall with strongly scented foliage, valued during the Dia de los Muertos celebrations. Marigolds are extremely easy to grow from seed, but if you didn’t plant them in mid to late summer, you probably don’t have them popping up in your planters by now.

Luckily, those of us living in Texas, and other southern states with large Latin communities, will have easier access to these flowers either cut in markets or else potted in nurseries. Place them around the house or yard, or use them to decorate an altar dedicated to your loved one.

orange Marigolds on a sunny day

For those in northern states getting blasted by winter, try livening up the room with some DIY marigolds made from layers of orange or yellow tissue paper. Fold them accordion style, and secure in the middle with a pipe cleaner or staple. (Remember the cute little tissue flowers you made for your mom on Mother’s Day in grade school? This is an upgrade.) Cut a ‘V’ in the ends, or fringes, or another design, and carefully separate the layers, creating a pretty tissue pompom marigold to spruce up your interior.

Create a Shrine

Upcycling and DIY seem to go hand in hand, bringing new life to something that would otherwise have been thrown away. Try making a mini matchbook shrine or cigar box shrine to remind you of your loved one. Use sandpaper to scuff up the outside of the empty matchbook, and decorate with acrylic paints or watercolors, calaveras cutouts, glitter, small charms or silk flowers, and anything else that strikes your fancy.

Or use an empty cigar box with the lid removed (or not) to create a display that tells your loved one’s story. If you decide to leave the lid on, determine whether or not you want to be able to close it. This will help you decide how you decorate the interior. Use hot glue to attach scrapbook paper or another ornamental background. Images of saints, flowers, decorative tokens, skulls, or la catrina are traditional, but use your creative wiles to complement your display.

brightly colored painted sugar Day of the Dead skulls

Cut out Papel Picado

Cutting out intricate patterns in pieces of tissue paper is a decorative folk art often displayed during different occasions of the year. In Mexico you'll see banners in the streets and alleyways around the holidays, and created for weddings, quinceañeras, religious occasions, and more.

For Day of the Dead, these can be used to decorate an altar or ofrenda, a display that includes a picture of the deceased, some of their favorite foods and pan de muerto, or drinks like tequila for the adults, as well as candles, sugar skulls, and so much more depending on how elaborate the display.

Artisans can create ones of delicate beauty using a mallet and chisel. They can also be made at home using colored tissue paper, a stenciled template on paper, a self-healing mat, and a craft knife or scissors.

If you don't have those materials, try a simple DIY using the snowflake method: accordion fold tissue paper and cut out shapes in the folds. When you unfold it, you'll see various patterns created by the cuts. If you have access to the materials, you can cut several layers of colored tissue paper on a self-healing mat using any template you like as a guide. These can be much more ornate depending on the guide used, so take your time with your creation.

round loaves of Day of the Dead bread with cross designs on top

Remember Your Loved One with a Memory Ornament

Maybe not so traditional, but still a nice way to honor a loved one. These can be created with easy to find craft supplies at places like Michael’s, Hobby Lobby, or even online. Find clear glass ornaments, various pictures of your loved one small enough to glue onto the ornament, glitter (preferably microfine), small paintbrush, craft glue, clear water-based varnish.

Remove the top of the ornament and swirl a small amount of varnish inside to fully coat. Drain the excess, pour in some glitter, and cap it with your finger while you give it a shake. Let it dry before replacing the top. Then cap it and attach the photo to the outside. You can add further embellishments by painting a word or name, or adding a glitter frame to the photo. Use these ornaments to decorate a shrine, or make several to hang from a picture or ornament tree.

Day of the Dead is a celebration to honor the life and memory of those who have gone before us. It's a meaningful, time-honored tradition that reminds us no one is ever really gone, as long as someone is there to remember them.