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Sugar Skulls and Sand Paintings: Day of the Dead for Seattle-area Kids and Families

Honor and celebrate your own departed at these colorful local celebrations

Courtesy: Phinney Neighborhood Association | Credit: Gustavo Vasquez

Día de los Muertos, literally translated as “Day of the Dead,” is a celebration of ancestors and close friends who have departed. In Mexico (and other Latin American countries), families honor their deceased loved ones by gathering favorite foods, lighting candles, and building small altars.

Offerings are brought to graves, including gorgeous, yellowy-orange marigolds thought to attract the souls of the dead.

In some parts of Mexico, families spend all night beside the graves of their relatives. In other parts, teens parade through town carrying a coffin containing a person dressed up as a skeleton and allowing bystanders to toss coins, oranges, or candy into the coffin.

Skeletons begin to appear everywhere in Mexico leading up to the Day of the Dead. Made of wood, sugar, or even paper maché, the skeletons are depicted doing happy things such as playing instruments, getting married, and dancing to idealize life after death.

Our family loves this holiday not just for the cross-cultural exploration and the opportunity to practice Spanish but for the opportunity to honor our own ancestors. Here’s a time when death can be explored through art and those who have passed can be remembered with joy. Here are ways to celebrate this holiday around Puget Sound.

Day of the Dead fests around Puget Sound

Seattle Art Museum: Displays through Nov. 5, festival on Friday, Oct. 30

A tapete at Seattle Art Museum

A gorgeous Oaxacan-inspired tapete (sand painting) will be on view at the Seattle Art Museum from Oct. 28 through Nov. 5. A Día de los Muertos Community Night Out will be held on Friday, Oct. 30, from 7–9 p.m., with live world music, hands-on art projects and more. Both the tapete viewing and the community night out are free and open to the public. 

As you explore the tapetes, talk with your kids about the potential permanence or impermanence of the art. What do they think about an artist creating something so beautiful that is only temporary? They can even ask the artist themselves!

Seattle Center: Saturday–Sunday, Oct. 31–Nov.1

Dia de Muertos Dancing at Seattle Armory | Courtesy Seattle Center | Credit: Jonathan Beck

A festival at the Seattle Center Armory, “Día de Muertos: A Mexican Celebration to Remember Our Departed,” will take place on Oct. 31—Nov. 1, 11 a.m.—6 p.m. Our family has visited many times and there is always something new to do.

Expect a variety of performances — dances, puppet shows, and traditional story-telling— displaying the cultural roots of Mexico, hands-on crafts such as sugar-skull decorating or creating paper marigolds, gorgeous sand paintings, lots and lots of skeletons, and face painting.

Phinney Neighborhood Center: Sunday, Nov. 1, 4–7 p.m.

Courtesy: Phinney Neighborhood Association | Credit: Gustavo Vasquez

Celebrate the cycle of life and death with this fabulous, free annual family event at the Phinney Neighborhood Association. Participate in a procession (starting at 4 p.m.), dance to live children’s music from Marco Cortes and sip slowly on cinnamon-y Mexican hot chocolate (yum!). Plan to paint a sugar skull, sample pan de muerto (bread of the dead), and enter a raffle (proceeds benefit PCPE, the Spanish Preschool Co-op).

There will also be face painting Día de los Muertos style and delicious food for purchase. If you'd like to contribute to the community altar, stop by with remembrances from Oct. 30–Nov. 8.

Tacoma Art Museum: Sunday, Nov. 1, 10 a.m.–4 p.m.

Day of the Dead Tacoma Art Museum Dia de los Muertos Sugar Skulls Activites for Kids

Tacoma Art Museum is holding its 11th annual free festival on Sunday, Nov. 1. Artist Rene Julio has created a one-of-a-kind sand painting in the lobby of the Tacoma Art Museum. The tapete will be on display all the way through the community festival. Join in this fun, free celebration, which will include music, art-making, dance and community altars. Don't forget to check out TAM's kid-friendly art studio, free to use during open hours whether you've paid museum admission or not. 

El Centro de La Raza, Monday, Nov. 2, 5:30–8:30 p.m.

Day of the Dead altar | Courtesy El Centro De La Raza

This multicultural center in south Seattle organizes an annual celebration that includes a chance to contribute to the ofrenda, or altar; and a cena, or meal, celebrating the departed. This year's ofrenda exhibit is in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. The ofrenda exhibit continues through Nov. 19.

Burien Community Center, Friday, Oct. 30, 6–9 p.m.

Burien's inaugural Day of the Dead celebration will be held at its community center at 14700 Sixth Ave. S.W., with live bolero and mariachi music, Mexican dance, storytelling around the campfire with Mirta Wymerszberg, face painting, crafts such as sugar skulls, a community altar, the chance to play loteria (Mexican bingo) and food for sale. 

Bainbridge Island Museum of Art, Sunday, Nov. 1

Bainbridge Island's free museum holds a festival that begins at 10:30 a.m. with a kick-off, ofrenda (altar of offerings), and public remembrances. From noon-2 p.m., there will be face painting, papel picado (cut paper), and tissue paper flower activities in the classroom. From 11:30 a.m., the public can make contributions to the altar. You'll also enjoy Mexican hot chocolate, pan de muerto, and authentic tamales in the Bistro while supplies last. On Saturday, Nov. 7 from 11 a.m.–2 p.m., the museum will host a Dia de los Muertos-themed monoprint activity with Xio Lugo. The public can also make public contributions to the altar all week. 

Seattle Public Library, through Nov. 7

Day of the Dead Story Time at Seattle Public Library | Credit: Adriana Morales Marin

There is so much to do at the library! Take out some non-fiction books on Mexico, borrow a Spanish language learning tape, or attend a Spanish story hour. And through Saturday, Nov. 7, you can also sample Day of the Dead activities at library branches across Seattle. On some days, kids will have the chance to paint and decorate their own sugar skulls. On other days, they might create their own miniature calacas. Still other possibilities include creating art prints, clay magnets or enjoying songs and games related to Dia de los Meurtos.   

Yakima celebration

Day of the Dead festival in Yakima | Courtesy Tieton Arts and Humanities

Looking to celebrate Dia de los Meurtos within a vibrant Mexican-American community? Visit Yakima! Tieton Arts and Humanities will host its annual Dia de los Muertos Community Celebration and Altar Exhibition on Oct. 25. Families will enjoy face-painting, a labyrinth, sugar-skull decoration and music performances and dancing. The art exhibition will be on display noon–3 p.m. on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays through Nov. 8.  (See other tips in our Yakima with kids article.)

Celebrate Day of the Dead at home

Your family might also want to bring this holiday home and take time to really celebrate your own friends and relatives who have passed. Check out this article for wonderful ideas for crafts and remembrances.

You can start by making small altars in honor of deceased loved ones. They’re easy to create from a photo, a small container, and bits of ribbons, trim, tinfoil, glitter, or whatever other decorations you have around the house. Add items of significance that reflect the person’s life and character, perhaps a button from their favorite shirt, a candy, or a Christmas ornament. Be creative with the container, you could use an old mint tin, a jewelry box or even a matchbox.

Once you have an altar, help your children remember and discuss the dead by telling anecdotes and stories to bring the memories alive.

In remembering your loved one’s favorite foods and activities, you can enjoy them in their honor. Your kids may also want to create bright orange flowers from tissue paper and pipe cleaners to decorate the house and help you bake delicious and beautiful Pan de Muerto.

How to make Pan de Muerto


• 1/4 cup milk
• 1/4 cup (half a stick) margarine or butter, cut into 8 pieces
• 1/4 cup sugar
• 1/2 teaspoon salt
• 1 package active dry yeast
• 1/4 cup very warm water
• 2 eggs
• 3 cups all-purpose flour, unsifted
• 1/2 teaspoon anise seed
• 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
• 2 teaspoons sugar


Bring milk to boil and remove from heat. Stir in margarine or butter, 1/4 cup sugar and salt. In large bowl, mix yeast with warm water until dissolved and let stand 5 minutes. Add the milk mixture.

Separate the yolk and white of one egg. Add the yolk to the yeast mixture, but save the white for later. Now add flour to the yeast and egg. Blend well until dough ball is formed.

Flour a pastry board or work surface very well and place the dough in center. Knead until smooth. Return to large bowl and cover with dish towel. Let rise in warm place for 90 minutes. Meanwhile, grease a baking sheet and preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Knead dough again on floured surface. Now divide the dough into fourths and set one fourth aside. Roll the remaining 3 pieces into "ropes."

On greased baking sheet, pinch 3 rope ends together and braid. Finish by pinching ends together on opposite side. Divide the remaining dough in half and form 2 "bones." Cross and lay them atop braided loaf.

Cover bread with dish towel and let rise for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, in a bowl, mix anise seed, cinnamon and 2 teaspoons sugar together. In another bowl, beat egg white lightly.

When 30 minutes are up, brush top of bread with egg white and sprinkle with sugar mixture, except on cross bones. Bake at 350 degrees for 35 minutes.

Makes 8 to 10 servings

From Look What We'Ve Brought You from Mexico, by Phyllis Shalant.

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