How to Throw a Dia de los Muertos Party

Three friends dressed for a Day of the Dead party.
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Born when Catholic missionaries combined local Aztec rituals and the Church calendar, Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, celebrates the lives of deceased loved ones. The festivities honor the deceased as continuing members of the community and teach about the cycle of life. Families often gather to clean and decorate the cemetery, sharing a meal alongside the graves of the departed. With a few traditional foods and decorations, you can bring festive remembrance home to your party.

1 Invitations and Favors

Set the tone for your party with a calavera-, or skull-shaped, invitation or add a calacas, or skeleton, figure to a simple card cut to resemble a tombstone. Tuck a small picture frame, decorated with paper or fabric flowers, or tiny skull or skeleton figures, into a bag with the candy skulls known as calaveras de azucar.

2 House and Table Decorations

Start off your decorations with table runners made from serapes, the colorful woven blankets of Mexico. Scatter candles of different sizes, especially saints’ candles, around the room and hang skull banners and skeleton mobiles from the ceilings. Papel picado, the intricately perforated paper of Mexican folk-art tradition, also adds color when you string it on yarn or twine and hang it along the walls. Figurines of calacas and calaveras in their fancy clothes and brightly painted designs round out the decorations. Los flores de muertos, or marigolds, are a traditional part of the decorations, with the belief the bright colors and strong scent of the petals scattered in a path to the ofrenda, or altar, lead the invited spirits to the party.

3 Food and Drink

No celebration of Dia de los Muertos is complete without the traditional pan de muertos, a rich egg bread baked in rounds or in the shape of animals or humans. Traditionally, the favorite foods of the departed family members are served, but you may share moles and tamales with your guests, along with a salad tossed with edible marigold petals. For dessert, offer pumpkin empanadas, calabeza en tacha -- candied pumpkin -- and bunuelos made from fried flour tortillas sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar. Serve up horchata, a rice or nut drink, to your youngest guests, while adult visitors enjoy traditional drinks such as mescal, pulque or atole, a thick, corn-based beverage.

4 Entertainment and Activities

Traditionally, Day of the Dead activities include cleaning the cemetery and decorating the graves. Add a little learning to the party by sharing children’s books about Dia de los Muertos, such as “Rosita and Conchita” by Eric Gonzalez and Erich Haeger; “ Day of the Dead” by Tony Johnston and Jeannette Winter; “Calavera Abecedario” by Jeannette Winter; “Clatter Bash” by Richard Keep; or “Uncle Monarch and the Day of the Dead” by Judy Goldman. Scatter the books near seating areas and let your guests enjoy them as they visit. Children and adults alike may enjoy making an ornament as a keepsake of your party. Ask guests to bring a photograph of a deceased family member. Provide clear glass ornaments, decoupage medium, paints, glitter and craft jewels for embellishing their ornaments after they adhere the photo, face-down, to the outside of the ball with decoupage glue.

Pamela Martin has been writing since 1979. She has written newsletter articles and curricula-related materials. She also writes about teaching and crafts. Martin was an American Society of Newspaper Editors High School Journalism Fellow. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Teaching in elementary education from Sam Houston State University and a Master of Arts in curriculum/instruction from the University of Missouri.