Educator How-To: Make your own Dia de los Muertos altar out of Altoids tins

If you have been following along, you might have noted that Dia de los Muertos — Day of the Dead — is a favorite holiday for the Youth Education staffers.

The Day of the Dead is celebrated in Mexico on Nov. 2. It is a time when Mexican families spend time at the cemetery, visiting the graves of their relatives, cleaning and perhaps painting the headstones, arranging flowers, especially flowers of the dead (marigolds) and lighting candles.

It is also the time when Mexican families construct special home altars dedicated to the spirits of their deceased loved ones. The altars range from simple to the very elaborate and are usually filled with objects that provided pleasure to the departed person in life, including favorite food and drink. Altars dedicated to the spirits of deceased children often include toys, candy and other sweets.


The altars usually contain objects with significant meaning. These objects can be either the actual thing or a representation.These objects include, but aren’t limited to:

Pictures of the deceased and/or representations of saints: These are used as a focus for the shrine and may help determine the direction of the rest of the altar.  For example, Frida Kahlo is a popular topic for altars.  An altar to her may be very different than one for a personal relative.

Marigolds: The flower cempazúchil, also known as the marigold, is the flower of the dead. Its yellow orange color can be seen from far away; therefore the flowers are the first beacon the dead will see.  A trail of flowers leads the dead home where the altar is awaiting their arrival.

Copal: Copal is aromatic tree resin burned in Mesoamerica as incense.  Several different tree resins bear the name copal. Copal is burned on the altar so that the dead might recognize the aroma of their home and feel welcome.

Pan de Muerto and other foods: These are offered to the spirit of the dead to help sustain them in the afterlife.

Candles: The candles on an altar represent fire, one of the four essential altar elements.  Candles are included in the altar to purify and to provide light to the dead to help them find their way home. One candle is included on the altar for each deceased that is being remembered.

Skulls and skeletons: Sugar skulls are a traditional folk art from southern Mexico used to celebrate Day of the Dead. Mounds of colorful sugar skulls are sold by Indian vendors in open air village markets during the week preceding the holiday. Sugar skulls are colorfully decorated with icing, pieces of bright foil, colored sugars and usually bear the name of the deceased loved one being honored. The calaca is a model of a skeleton that can be found doing any number of things that the dead may have enjoyed in life, from riding a bike to dancing. The calaca reminds us that death is not something to fear. The calaca also shows us that no soul likes to be remembered sadly. Papier-mâché skeletons and skulls are used to add flair, beauty and a festive air to the Day of the Dead.  Mexican folk artists spend all year crafting this very special type of art.

Since it is unlikely that you will be able to take your students to the graveyard of a famous scientist or celebrity to construct an altar in their honor, we are proposing that you bring the altars to your classroom! This small and potentially free classroom activity involves research, informative writing, creative thinking and a little bit of arts and crafts for good measure. Enjoy!

Altoids tin or other similar tin
Quick dry craft glue
A nail or other scratching device
Tissue paper
Pens, pencils, markers etc.
Any other found objects you choose – it can be anything you want to give students access to or anything they can bring in.



1. The project can contain either purely artistic merit or it can have a writing component to add higher level thinking and make it multidisciplinary and applicable to any class. This project is written to include the composition portion, but feel free to eliminate it if you choose.

2. Explain the purpose of an altar for Dia de los Muertos as well as the traditional elements of an altar to your class.

3. To begin, have students research an historical figure or relative of their choice. The figure must be deceased. You may want to set some limits of the choices (must have died at least 50 years ago, must be from a specific country, must be a writer/scientist, can’t be an actor or musician, etc.).

4. Once the students have selected a figure and you have approved of the choice, you will want to provide a rubric, format or objective for the students. Depending on the grade level, you may want to structure the composition around a particular TEKS writing objective or prompt. For example:

  • > 3rd graders need to communicate with a variety of audiences and learn the basics of research.
  • > 4th and 5th graders need to persuade and inform in their writing.
  • > 6th graders need to write about their own experiences and write persuasively.
  • > 7th graders need to write about their own experiences and write persuasively.
  • > 8th graders need to write a personal essay and write persuasively.

So in any of these examples, you could have students make a case for a particular historical figure or family member. The choice of writing composition will be left to you.

5. Now you will need to provide students with their tin. You can either order them from a number of various sources for about $0.30 each or you can have students collect or provide Altoids tins. These will be free to you! The advantage to the tins as opposed to a larger classroom altar is the storage requirements and the cost.

6. Review the Day of the Dead altar and its components again. Explain to your students that they will be making a complete altar for their figure. They must include all of the elements of the traditional altar. Due to the space restrictions, however, they must get creative!  For older students, you will need to talk about symbolism and encourage them to incorporate this into their altars while still fitting the figure in question. For example, a student picks Thomas Edison. Rather than a candle, the student might opt for a magazine cutout of a light bulb to represent both light and illumination AND one of Edison’s inventions; or students could add overly large ears to their skulls to show that Edison was largely deaf.

7. Let students have access to anything and everything consumable that might work into their altar. You may want them to collect items to bring in and share. Even very unconventional items will be great as part of the challenge is creativity.  It will be up to you to decide whether to let students work on their tins in class or at home, but it may be a good idea to let them at least discuss ideas in small groups so they can help each other develop ideas. This will be particularly effective after researching the figure because they will have more information to provide to their classmates about their figure (like the invention of the light bulb and deafness for Thomas Edison).

8. As the students are working on their altars, have them make a note of how they incorporated each of the altar elements in a meaningful way. This should be turned in as part of the altar. See the example included below.

9. Once the students’ tins are complete, have them create a little class art gallery or museum so that all of students can see the creativity of the other students. You may want to create a survey for the students to fill out regarding the altars to make sure that they are taking their time and absorbing the information provided.  Some example questions might include:

  • > Which altar is your favorite? Why?
  • > List three interesting or surprising facts you learned. Each fact must come from a different altar.
  • > Name one symbol from one altar that you might have represented differently. How would you have done it?


10. Additionally, you might want to display altars in the library or display cases, have students present their findings to the class using PowerPoint, have students translate their symbol information into Spanish, etc.

As an example, I have included pictures of my tin altar and an explanation of my components:

Example Explanation of Altar Symbols

Explanation of Altar Symbols

Pictures: I chose this particular portrait of Charles Darwin because it was one of the last made during his lifetime. Additionally, it is a painting rather than photograph. Most of the images available of Darwin as an adult are photographs and I like to think, with all of the scientific and technological change that occurred during his time, that the last image of his was created using very traditional methods.

Marigolds/Candles: The origin of the word “marigold” is probably a reference for the Virgin Mary or possible refers to its original name in old Saxon which meant “it turns with the Sun.” So the image of marigolds does triple duty: it refers to a saint, it represents grave flowers, and it represents light.

Copal: I left traditional copal as part of my altar because Darwin originally joined the HMS Beagle crew as a geologist. Copal, like amber, are both considered fossils and are important clues in determining the flora and fauna of a particular area of time in the fossil record.

Pan de Muerto and other foods: I have included a picture of hardtack rather than pan de muerto. Both are bread-based but the hardtack was a common food substance on ships as it kept for a long time in the holds.

Skulls and skeletons: The skeleton I included is of a frog because one of the many contributions Darwin made to science was in identifying a species of frog, named “Darwin’s frog”, as part of his travels on the HMS Beagle.

Sweet lobotomies: A sugar skull how-to for fellow craft addicts

Fall is a favorite time of year for many people in the Education Department. The summer rush is over, the weather has gone from sweltering to just hot and Dia De Los Muertos is approaching. When it comes to Day of the Dead crafts, some might say we have an addiction. But we don’t! We can stop crafting whenever we want to … we just don’t want to.

To share in the spirit of this holiday for craft addicts, we’re going to show you how to make sugar skulls. They are fun and easy, but you should be prepared to get a little sticky, and the process does take a bit of time.

Completed sugar skull!Ingredients:
5 lbs of sugar
¼ cup of meringue powder
3+ tablespoons of water

A big bowl
A sugar skull mold (see notes below)
Scraps of cardboard sized to your mold
Your hands (because a spoon just doesn’t cut it!)

1.    Dump your 5 lbs. bag of sugar into your bowl.
2.    Add ¼ cup of meringue powder. We used a rounded ¼ cup, so precision isn’t super important here. Meringue powder is widely available at any store selling cake decorating supplies.

Sweet lobotomy! A sugar skull how-to3.    Mix the sugar and powder with your hands.
4.    Add 3 tablespoons of water half a tablespoon at a time and mix with your hands. You are aiming for the sugar to stick to itself. To test this, sprinkle a handful into your open palm. Close that palm into a fist and then open your hand. If the sugar stays in the shape of your closed fist — however briefly — you’ve got a winner.  If it is too powdery or won’t stick, add more water. If it is too mushy, add a bit more sugar.
5.    Once you’ve got it to the right consistency, get your mold. We’ve cut ours apart for ease of use, but you can leave them as a whole sheet too.
6.    Put the mold in one of your hands face down.
7.    Pack the sugar mixture into the mold like you would brown sugar for baking.  It is okay if it is overly full as long as it is tightly packed.
8.    Using your cardboard scrap, scrape the excess sugar off and back into the bowl.  Your skull’s back, if viewed from the side, should be totally flat.
9.    Place the cardboard scrap on the back of your skull so it covers all the sugar.

Sweet lobotomy! A sugar skull how-to10.    Press the mold and cardboard together.

Sweet lobotomy! A sugar skull how-to11.    Flip!

Sweet lobotomy! A sugar skull how-to12.    Place both pieces on the counter together.
13.    Lift the mold off.  Ta-da!

Sweet lobotomy! A sugar skull how-to14.    Repeat this process, making sure to make enough backs and fronts. Making sugar skulls is a very forgiving process. If you aren’t 100 percent satisfied with your work, dump it back into the bowl and start over. If your skull is dried and has a defect, cover the defect with icing.  No worries!
15.    After 4 to 8 hours, depending on the humidity, your skulls should be stiff to the touch and you can gently pop them off the cardboard.
16.    Take a skull and place it in your hand face down.
17.    With a metal spoon, lobotomize your sugar skull. You will scoop out all the inside goodness and put it back in your bowl.  If your skull isn’t dry enough, it will crumble in your hand. This isn’t a problem – just wet your hand, mix up the bits and do it again. If your skull is too hard, you won’t get any scoopings. This isn’t the worst thing in the world, either, but no scoopings means heavier skulls and it is a bit wasteful.

Sweet lobotomy! A sugar skull how-to18.    Re-wet the scoopings, if necessary, and use them to make a few more skulls!

Sweet lobotomy! A sugar skull how-to19.    Stay tuned for a second post on how to make royal icing to cement and decorate your skulls.

If you are nervous about the process, don’t have the time or just don’t want your floors to be sticky, join us on Monday Oct. 22, for an evening workshop on Day of the Dead and Sugar Skulls.

Editors’ Notes:
If you live in Houston, then you’re in for a treat. Casa Ramirez in the Heights is your one-stop-shop for Day of the Dead items, including a variety of sugar skull molds. Senor Ramirez is old school, however, so there is no website and definitely no online ordering option. This is offset by the instant gratification of walking away with your molds and not having to pay shipping.

If you are not from Houston, you might want to check out, a pretty terrific online store that sells just about anything you can imagine when it comes to Dia de Los Muertos. Happy lobotomizing!

Dead Man’s Party – Dia de los Muertos

Dia de los Muertos artwork by one of our hmns bloggers!

Halloween is this Saturday and everyone is scrambling to put together their costumes and figuring out what parties to go to Friday and Saturday. But what are your plans for Dia de los Muertos on November 2nd!?

The education department here at HMNS offered an encore event to last year’s very popular Dia de los Muertos Educator Overnight and teachers came from all over the greater Houston area to learn about this incredible holiday and how to do some activities with their own students so that they may learn more about the culture. If you want to learn how to make sugar skulls check out this guide online – it has some great tips on how to make some incredible shaped sugar treasures!

Above you’ll see an artwork that references La Calavera Catrina, an etching done by Mexican printmaker Jose Guadelupe Posada in 1913. La Catrina and some of Posada’s other artwork is reproduced and can be seen around town available on book bags, t-shirts and in jewelry – especially around Dia de los Muertos. This piece pictured here is composed completely out of dyed eggshells by one of our very own hmns bloggers!

Below are some of the fun hands on activities and projects the teachers did at the Overnight this year and don’t worry – we’re already thinking up some cool ideas for “Dia de los Muertos II – the Overnight Sequel for Educators” – next October! Drop me a line if you want to receive notice when we start accepting registrations for this Overnight in 2010 –

Decorating sugar skulls
Decorating sugar skulls
Calacas puppet in progress
Calacas puppet in progress
Cigar box altar
Cigar box altar
This tiny clay skull is perfect for a tiny cigar box altar table!
This tiny clay skull
is perfect for a tiny cigar box altar table!
Completed sugar skulls!
Completed sugar skulls!

Cigar boxes and sparkles are the way to a teachers heart!

Earlier this month we had our first Educator’s Overnight of the school year and the theme was Day of the Dead! This topic has been near and dear to the Education department and we always manage to have one or two activities for teachers or students surrounding the Dia de los Muertos celebration.

Teachers adding details to their cigar box altars!

Teachers adding details to their cigar box altars!

We had a great time getting everything ready for the activities. We had plenty of things planned so that the hours would be full of things to do. Our goal was to make activities that teachers could “try” and then take back with them to their classroom to use with their students – what we didn’t expect was that the teachers would have so much fun with the arts and crafts! Kathleen Havens, the assistant director of youth education here at the museum, put together an awesome curriculum and gave the teachers the jumping off points and examples for all of the hands on activities.  

These enthusiastic educators transformed their simple cigar boxes into detailed works of art!

These enthusiastic educators transformed their simple cigar boxes into detailed works of art!

The teachers decorated ‘calacas’,  went through the process of making sugar skullsand then decorated some pre-made sugar skulls with colorful royal icing, created mini-altars in cigar boxes and painted Catrina-shaped fridge magnets. If you’ve ever worked with a group of kids on a project and you hear groans when you say “ok everyone, 5 more minutes and then we’re going to move on” you would be completely familiar with the sounds we heard from this group of teachers!  They were so excited to continue working on their mini-altars, creating tiny bouquets of flowers out of modeling clay, cutting out tiny papel picado from construction paper, building stairways and platforms for their tiny clay loaves of bread to perch upon… these teachers were going to town! After the allotted time for hands-on activities had finished for the night David Temple took the group on a flashlight tour of the Hall of the Americas and the Paleontology Hall.  Then some teachers decided to call it a night, but others asked to be able to go back and work on their altars – how could we say no!?

By about 3 am, everyone had finally headed up to bed and then it seemed like only moments later I was waking everyone up for breakfast at 7 am! Just imagine, those teachers were up in time for school on Friday and still up at 3am on Saturday morning with plenty of energy – that’s absolutely incredible! I hope that they took their projects back to share with their students and spread the enthusiasm for Dia de los Muertos they shared with us at the Overnight!

Gel food coloring (found in the cake decorating section of cooking stores) is used to make the really vivid colors of royal icing!

Gel food coloring (found in the cake decorating section of any cooking store) is used to make the really vivid colors of royal icing!

This was the second Educator Overnight that we’ve had here at the HMNS, and I think we all agree that it was both a sucess and a lot of fun! We’ll be hosting our next Educator Overnight – Mummies, Tombs and Catacombs in April and registrations are already rolling in! If you’re not so excited to sleep in the Museum we also offer 3 hour ExxonMobil Teacher Tuesdays. The next one up is ‘Polymers!’ with Carolyn Leap which should be lots of fun too!
Want more info? The recipes we use to make sugar skulls and the icing to decorate them can be found online at Mexican Sugar – they also have a lot of other cool Day of the Dead related items to check out.
I have included a few photos here and have posted more (with some closeups of finished sugar skull designs) on our HMNS Facebook page. If you want to become a fan of HMNS you can check them out!