ARTSEDGE Lessons for Elementary School

Tolerance: Comparing Cultural Holidays

Compare traditions associated with Halloween (United States) and El Día de los Muertos/Day of the Dead (Mexico)


Key Staff

Primary instructor. Teacher's aides would be helpful for special needs of ELL students.

Key Skills

Developing Arts Literacies: Understanding Genres, Analyzing and Evaluating - Critique
Making Art: Producing, Executing and Performing
Global Connections: Connecting to History and Culture


In this lesson, students compare the holiday of Halloween, as celebrated in the United States, to the Mexican holiday of El Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead, November 1-2). Students compare both holidays by looking at traditions, music, and visual art. Each student then replicates a tradition associated with El Día de los Muertos by creating an altar in memory of an ancestor who has died.

Learning Objectives

Students will:

  • Compare how the holidays of Halloween (in the United States) and Día de los Muertos (in Mexico) are celebrated.
  • Research the traditions, music, and history of Halloween and El Día de los Muertos.
  • Create an altar piece in honor of someone who has passed on.

Teaching Approach

  • Thematic
  • Arts Integration

Teaching Methods

  • Discovery Learning
  • Discussion
  • Experiential Learning
  • Reflection
  • Research

Assessment Type



What You'll Need

Required Technology
  • Mobile Media Player
  • Speakers
  • 1 Computer per Learner
  • Internet Access
Lesson Setup

Teacher Background

Teachers should review these resources to familiarize themselves with customs associated with the Day of the Dead:

  • Day of the Dead: A Mexican-American Celebration by Diane Hoyt-Goldsmith
    (This book can be substituted for another book on the Day of the Dead.)
  • Day of the Dead by Tony Johnston
    (This book can be substituted for another book on the Day of the Dead.)

Spanish teachers may choose to add more Spanish terminology into the lesson.

Prior Student Knowledge

Students should know where Mexico is located and general things about Mexican culture (language, food, dress).

Physical Space



Small Group Instruction

Accessibility Notes

Students with visual impairments or disabilities and/or ELL students may need modified handouts or texts.


Resources in Reach

Here are the resources you'll need for each activity, in order of instruction.



1. Explain to students that the purpose of this lesson is to learn about another culture. Learning about another culture’s traditions is the best way to become more tolerant. Ask students if they understand the term “tolerance.” Ask them for related words or synonyms. If they are confused, explain the concept to them. (Tolerance = The capacity for or the practice of recognizing and respecting the beliefs or practices of others.)

2. Ask the students what they think of and how they might define the words "holiday," "celebrate," and "tradition." Place the words on the board in a chart form and give space for student responses. Students will likely list specific holidays, things to celebrate, and traditions. Distribute the Vocabulary handout located within the Resource Carousel and discuss the definitions with students.

3. Engage students in a discussion of Halloween. One holiday that students will likely mention is Halloween, a holiday that has become a controversial holiday in many communities. Discuss what students in the class do to observe Halloween. Do they dress up and trick-or-treat in their neighborhoods? Do they go to parties? Quite a few students may not observe the holiday. Discuss the reasons for not celebrating the holiday, including religious objections.

4. Discuss the history of Halloween. Explain that in ancient Celtic times (in the region that is now England, Ireland, Wales, and Scotland), Halloween was regarded as a time when the spirits of those that had died the previous year returned to earth. The living put on masks to seek protection by hiding from the spirits. Halloween, October 31, is also called "All Hallows' Eve."

Explain that in the Roman Catholic religion, November 1st is known as All Saints' Day. It is a "holy day of obligation" (a day on which Catholics are required to attend mass). It is a day that honors the saints whose birth or death anniversaries are not known. The following day, All Souls' Day, honors all others who have died. In England, it was once the custom to give money and food to the poor on All Souls' Day. This led to the custom of children begging for treats on Halloween.

5. Tell the students that in Mexico, November 1st and 2nd are known as "El Día de los Muertos" or "Los Días de los Muertos" (Day of the Dead). During this annual event, which is a blend of Spanish Catholic traditions and native beliefs in Mexico, people create altars to honor departed relatives. Families gather items such as marigolds, the relative's favorite food, and pictures of the person. They take these items to the graveyard and have a picnic or party on the grave. This tradition is thought to make death less frightening, because it shows that you will be remembered after you have died. It also helps to console the living people who miss the deceased individual.

Build Knowledge

1. Divide the class into four different groups to research about Halloween and El Día de los Muertos. The students are to compare the two holidays looking for examples of music and visual art. The students should conduct research using print and Web resources. For resources, see the Teacher References section.

2. Have the groups share their research with class. As a follow-up to this activity, note that many cultures have traditions for honoring the dead. In Afghanistan, one prepares and eats the favorite food of the deceased relative for a month after he/she died on Thursdays. Vietnamese and Koreans create shrines to honor ancestors like the altars in Mexico. Japanese Buddhists clean homes and prepare special foods for a three-day celebration of the dead in July.


1. Explain to each student group that they will be creating an altar, similar to those used on El Día de los Muertos, to honor a relative or special person who has died. Honoring and celebrating the life of a departed loved one is a way to keep that person living on in the hearts of those left behind. (Note: If the students do not personally know of a person who has died, tell them to talk to their parents or guardian about someone meaningful in their life who passed away.) Follow these steps to create an altar:

  • Have students bring photos of the person who passed away.
  • Set a table against the wall.
  • Place books or empty boxes on the table to create different levels and cover with a cloth (the levels represent the stages spirits go though to reach heaven or Paradise.)
  • Add flower petals and garlands (marigolds are best, since yellow and the flower itself symbolize), a glass of water, and candles
  • Place photos of the dead on the altar, along with any favorite possessions (books, music, etc) and food or drinks they enjoyed while they were alive. (This is to welcome the spirits to the party.)

Encourage each group to individualize their altar with a variety of art supplies, including paint, colored paper, and crayons or markers. (Note: The process of creating the altar may be sensitive or emotional for some students. Encourage students to use only positive, constructive feedback. Circulate the room offering guidance and support.)


1. When students have completed their altars, have each group present their altar to the class with an explanation of the meaning of each item in the altar. You may also wish to have students accompany their verbal presentation with a written synopsis about what they learned from the process of making an altar to honor the dead.

2. Ask students what they learned about Mexican culture. Connect their responses back to the notion of tolerance.


Assess the students' work using the Assessment Rubric located within the Resource Carousel.


Throughout the nation, standards of learning are being revised, published and adopted. During this time of transition, ARTSEDGE will continually add connections to the Common Core, Next Generation Science standards and other standards to our existing lessons, in addition to the previous versions of the National Standards across the subject areas.

The Arts Standards used in ARTSEDGE Lessons are the 1994 voluntary national arts standards. The Arts learning standards were revised in 2014; please visit the National Core Arts Standards (http://nationalartsstandards.org) for more. The Kennedy Center is working on developing new lessons to connect to these standards, while maintaining the existing lesson library aligned to the Common Core, other state standards, and the 1994 National Standards for Arts Education.

ArtsEdge Lessons connect to the National Standards for Arts Education, the Common Core Standards, and a range of other subject area standards.

Common Core/State Standards

Select state and grade(s) below, then click "Find" to display Common Core and state standards.

National Standards For Arts Education
Visual Arts

Grade K-4 Visual Arts Standard 3: Choosing and evaluating a range of subject matter, symbols, and ideas

Grade K-4 Visual Arts Standard 4: Understanding the visual arts in relation to history and cultures

Visual Arts

Grade K-4 Visual Arts Standard 6: Making connections between visual arts and other disciplines

National Standards in Other Subjects



Mary Beth Bauernschub
Original Writer

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