Beyond Halloween – Using Holidays to Teach Social Awareness

Fall is in the air and many children are carving their pumpkins, preparing for Halloween parties and trick or treating, but this is just one cultural group’s upcoming holiday.  In the Mexican culture, children and families are preparing for Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead).  In this post, I am going to highlight the importance of Social Awareness by specifically shedding light on a holiday in the Mexican tradition.

Building Social Awareness

Social awareness is one of the five aspects within social emotional learning.   These aspects are important to teach and expose to children because they positively affect their academic, emotional, and social development which will prepare them for adulthood.

Social awareness is the ability to put one’s self in others’ shoes (empathy), appreciate diversity, and respect others even when they are different from us, according to  Having social awareness allows children to build better relationships now and down the future.  This is because they can understand the perspectives of those with different backgrounds from their own.

October is the perfect time to introduce social awareness to students and children.  Many Mexican families are preparing for their holiday that starts on the same day as Halloween.  The Day of the Dead (Día de los Muertos) starts on October 31st and ends November 2nd.  Yes, there are a few similarities between Halloween and the Day of the Dead.  During the Day of the Dead celebrations, there are also decorations and people dressed up in costumes, but the cultural traditions and meaning behind this holiday is what distinguishes itself from Halloween.

Understanding the Day of the Dead

What is this holiday:  Day of the dead celebrates and embraces all stages of life, including death.  This holiday specifically honors the life of departed loved ones instead of mourning their death.  Families set up a temporary altar (ofrenda) with pictures of their ancestors to celebrate them.  Families go to the grave sites of their ancestors, and can honor them in private.  Often times, celebrations include music and dancing.

Where:  It originated in Mexico and Central America

How did it come to be:  Before the conquistadors of Spain came to Central America, the indigenous cultures of this area like Aztec, celebrated the life and death of ancestors because they understood death is a part of the cycle of life.  They honored their ancestors’ spirits and believed those ancestors will temporarily return to Earth.  When the Spanish came to the Americas they also brought their traditions and beliefs including their religion.  The predominantly Christian Spanish celebrated Saints Day and All Saints Day (also honoring those who have passed) on November 1st and 2nd according to the Catholic calendar.   Over time, what we know as the Day of the Dead is a combination of Catholic’s All Saint’s Day and indigenous’ traditions of Mexico and Central America.

Today’s Traditions

  • Altars: Altars are are placed in homes and cemeteries and have picture of ancestors to welcome them back to Earth.  Small toys and sugar skulls are placed on altars for children who have passed.  Food and drinks are provided for the ancestors’ long journey.  Flowers and candles serve as decorations and aids for the journey as well.
  • Marigold flowers and candles:  It is important to ensure ancestors will find their way back to their family.  Families place Mexican Marigold flowers and candles around their ancestors’ graves, neighborhood, and the altar as a guide back to them.
  • Skeletons and skulls: A Mexican cartoonist and artist José Guadalupe Posada created a character that symbolized this holiday in the early 20th century.  This character was a skeleton dressed up in elegant, French style clothing.  Since the publication of his art, people have dressed up as the character and use skull decorations as a whimsical reminder of what the holiday symbolizes.
  • A popular dance during Día de Los Muertos Festivals: La Danza de los Viejitos (the dance of the little old men) involve young dancers pretending to be older adults but eventually dance energetically.

So as Halloween is approaching, also take some time to teach students another important, approaching holiday!

– Contributed by Ciera Shimkus, LPC, Expressive Arts Therapist


Interested in cultural dances from Mexico too?  Dancing with Class teaches dances from all over the world in our Dance Around the World program.  Check it out!

For classrooms anywhere: check out EduMotion: SEL Journeys , experiential learning for  classrooms around the world.

Other Resources:


Related posts