So in honor of this year’s upcoming Day of the Dead celebrations, here’s our experience celebrating Day of Dead in Sayulita, Mexico – a hip, surfing town on Nayarit’s coast.
But first, what’s Day of the Dead and how is it celebrated?
Embracing the Joyous Day of the Dead Celebrations
Day of the Dead is a joyous and festive occasion; the souls of the dead are believed to visit the living and it is much more celebratory than sad.
To honor the departed souls, colorful altars of passed family members and friends are erected and meticulously decorated with memorabilia of the departed, so that they may come back to delight in their favorite food, clothes, toys, hobbies, and so on.
Towns, cemeteries, plazas, and entire cities come alive in color and decorations, full of symbolism, and above all, love.
One magical explosion of papel picado strung across all the streets, handmade Ojos de Dios (eyes of God) decorating walls and walkways, and marigold flowers covering every square inch of sidewalks, altars, and tombs.
Many decorations and objects such as these are full of symbolism and meaning, especially for the departed souls.
Day of the Dead is observed across Mexico with varying culture programs and festivities. The most famous celebrations take place in Michoacan, Oaxaca, Mexico City, and Mixquic, among others. However, small towns such as Sayulita also offer incredible insight into the celebrations.
When is Day of the Dead Celebrated?
Day of the Dead is celebrated on the 1st and 2nd of November.
But in history and tradition, the souls of the dead are honored on different days, depending on whether they were a child or adult, or even the manner in which they died.
Traditionally, Day of the Dead dates honor the spirits who arrive at 12 noon each day:
- October 28th – honors those who died in an accident or a violent death
- October 29th – remembers the souls who drowned
- Oct. 30th – pays tribute to the lonely and forgotten souls, or orphans or criminals
- Oct. 31st – remembers those who were never born
- November 1st – honors spirits of the children (All Saints Day)
- November 2nd – honors spirits of adults (All Souls Day)
Also, because of modern times and Halloween gaining in popularity, Day of the Dead is often confused with Halloween. To be clear, the two have many differences.
While celebrations of Halloween might merge with Day of the Dead, the main celebrations and cultural programs of Day of the Dead still take place on November 1st and 2nd throughout Mexico.
Common Symbols of Day of the Dead
La Calavera Catrina
Day of the Dead is most often characterized by the famous Calavera Catrina female which was first depicted by a 20th-century political cartoonist named Posada.
Posada etched La Calavera Catrina dressed in fancy garments, thus poking fun at the fact that underneath it all, “we are all skeletons.” It was later popularized by icon Diego Rivera (husband of Frida Kahlo) in his 1946-47 mural. Many women dress up as La Catrina during the festival.
The skulls or “calavera” is iconic of Day of the Dead as well. These skulls are often placed on the altars and sugar skulls “calavera de azúcar” are popular candies.
Altars / Offerings (Ofrendas)
The altar is traditionally a family’s duty to erect every year for every family member that has passed. Although history and tradition are evolving, I learned that it still remains extremely important to do this for each member.
The altar is decorated with all the things that the departed soul loved; whether that is clothes, food, and drink, or hobbies.
We even saw an altar decorated in all things surf, including a surfboard. In addition to all the offerings placed on the altar, the altar is decorated with candles, marigold flowers, and sometimes painted rice or colored sand that meticulously decorates the space in front of the altar.
Marigold Flowers (Cempasúchil Flor de Muerto)
Marigolds are aplenty during Day of the Dead and are said to welcome and even guide the spirits to their respective altars. All the bright orange flowers make for an incredible atmosphere and aroma.
Pan de Muerto
El pan de Muerto is a Day of the Dead staple sweet-bread. It is covered in granulated sugar and has a soft, brioche center, but it can vary from region to region. This is how we experienced them in Nayarit, at least.
Papel Picado is the brightly-colored flags that represent most Mexican holidays and festivities. During Day of the Dead, papel picado decorates nearly every space imaginable; altars, shops, plazas, etc.
Most are strung between buildings across the streets. They represent the wind and the fragility of life and give a special festive feeling to the atmosphere.
Ojos de Dios
Ojos de Dios or “eyes of God / God’s eye” are typical of the Huichol indigenous tribe from the Mexican states of Nayarit and Jalisco, among others within the Sierra Madre mountains.
Although they are often made for children, we also saw them hanging above doors of homes year-round in the town in order to bring peace and represent God’s watchful eye.
Our Experience Celebrating Day of the Dead in Sayulita
Sayulita is one of Mexico’s pueblo magicos, or magic towns. Known for its popular surf, hipster boutiques, and colorful streets, Sayulita attracts quite the crowd. And for a couple of years now, their Day of the Dead celebrations have become phenomenal!
Remembering a friend
But our Day of the Dead experience began first in San Pancho, talking to friends and learning about their stories.
While San Pancho didn’t host a cultural program like Sayulita, it’s where we first paid tribute to our friend Rich who sadly passed away in the summer. He was one of the first people we met when we moved to San Pancho.
The guys at the coffee shop, which Rich frequented every morning, handcrafted a small altar showcasing his photo, marigolds, three coffee creamers, and an unfinished cigarette butt – the way Rich used to spend his mornings at Kokonati.
Being big on Halloween, we wanted to go out for the night. So we painted on sugar skull makeup and took a taxi with friends from San Pancho and stepped out in Sayulita half an hour later under a sky full of flying papel picado. I had seen papel picado in the town before, but nothing like this!
In the town center, a stage was erected and there were traditional dances, singing, shows, and speeches – all a part of Sayulita’s two-day cultural program.
We weaved ourselves around the plaza, visiting each altar one by one. Most still needed finishing, but already the work was astonishing. There wasn’t a detail out of place.
November 1: Taking in the sights and smells
Not wanting to miss a thing, we returned the next day to fully enjoy the official start of Day of the Dead.
When we arrived, we excitedly discovered even more decorations, complex and gorgeous altars, dances, and a full cultural program. Though we didn’t watch the full show, we simply took in all the electric energy, the colors and lights, the smiles and hugs, and most of all, all the love.
That night we noticed a big emphasis on the altars of the departed children, with photos of the little ones and their favorite toys or clothes. Next to each altar sat whom I presumed to be a relative. Some were sullen, but most were smiling and welcoming all to share in the beauty and memory of each departed soul.
Surrounding us were adults and children dressed in Catrinas and sugar skull makeup. Shops were covered in candles and ojos de dios, and vendors were selling piles of sweetbreads and skull candies at every corner. Music and a familiar mariachi boy’s singing was blaring over the speakers from the stage.
Down a popular street in Sayulita was a walkway decorated by the Huichol Indians of Sayulita (or “Wixaritaris” in Huichol) to share their prehispanic culture with us. Paul and I followed the arrows down to a man who blessed us with a marigold dipped in water.
November 1 at midnight: Our night walk from the town to the graveyard
We had heard that the Day of the Dead traditional walk from the town center of Sayulita all the way to the ocean-front cemetery was going to take place at midnight that night.
After a moving speech, the time came to march together to the graveyard, where the festivities would continue – but this time on the graves of the departed.
The band drummed its way to the beachside cemetery, leading the crowd out of the streets down a sandy road, and up a hill all the way to the graveyard. We had never been prior, and I’m kinda glad we waited until this momentous occasion.
We stood atop the hill, and all we could see were rows of tombs and graves. Nearly all were lit with candles and flowers. Some families had arrived before us and we found them already drunk and laughing with joy – certainly from stories of times past together.
Never before had I seen people lounging over graves, or drinking beer huddled next to a tombstone (with one beer left open for the departed one).
It was more of a party than anything, and it’s hard to describe the feeling from a spectator’s point of view.
It’s both overwhelming and humbling, so much so that it brings tears to your eyes and prayers to your lips…
Final Thoughts | Day of the Dead in Sayulita, Mexico
If you ever have the opportunity to experience Day of the Dead in Mexico, you must grab it and not let go.
Day of the Dead remains one of my most memorable cultural experiences and I am regretful not to be able to attend again this year!
Have you ever celebrated Day of the Dead with a family or somewhere else in Mexico? I want to hear about it! Share your comments with me here below.