Here in Mexico, people who die do not leave us definitively, their soul is still present, particularly during the three days of Hanal Pixan, the name given to the ‘Day of the Dead’ celebrations of the Maya people who live in the Yucatan Peninsula. In Maya, Hanal Pixan means ‘Food of the Souls’.
It’s one of the most important festivities of the year across all of Mexico, but especially here in the South. Its a fascinating tradition, which originates in an intriguing mixture of pre-Hispanic and Catholic ritual.
For the Maya, death was not an end, it was merely a new way of living. In the burial sites of many Maya offerings have been found – objects to guide and support the deceased in their new way of life. This belief lives on in the traditions of Hanal Pixan.
During three days, friends and family unite to pray for and remember their loved ones who have passed away and they help them on their spiritual journey to come back to us and feast on the offerings left for them on the altares.
It all begins on Ocobter 31st which is the day the souls of the dead children, or angelitos, will come to visit. On November 1st the souls of the adults will come back and on November 2nd there is a special mass and families go to visit the tombs of their loved ones.
In homes, schools and public spaces tables are set up and converted into altars, full of symbolic offerings to the dead, for them to enjoy on their visit back to their families.
Usually on the altars there are :photos of the deceased person, marigold flowers, candles, crosses, a jicama of salt and one of water (representing life and death) and perhaps most importantly, typical seasonal food.
For the children’s altars the table clothes are adorned in bright, cheerful colours, the candles are colourful and traditional toys and sweets are left out.
For the adults the deceased’s favourite things will be present on the altar, perhaps their favourite cigarettes, whiskey, cocacola or favourite dish – frijol con puerco, cochinita pibil, puchero etc.
The care put into assembling an altar is all part of the remembrance of the deceased. During this time of year, families talk about their loved ones who have died, remember their likes and dislikes, cook food for them, lay out their favourite things and generally make them present again in the home. I think this is a beautiful tradition to have.
Regional food plays a huge role in the festivities and altars. Foods such as mandarins, atole, dulce de papaya, tamales, pib and xek are all eaten and left on altars.
In Yucatan the food most associated with this time of year is Pib – a sort of giant tamal cooked underground in banana leaves. It is delicious and addictive.
Other food commonly seen on altars and enjoyed by Yucatecans during Hanal Pixan is Pan de Muerto with hot chocolate:
And Xek – a refreshing combination of jicama and mandarin orange with chile and lime:
Aside from the altars, there are so many more traditions that people observe during these days, for example it is commonly believed that houses and terraces should be clean and ordered before Hanal Pixan, with all pending housework done, as it is said that if not, the returning souls will do the work, which is a discourtesy.
In some smaller villages in the interior of the state, a red or black ribbon is tied around children’s right wrist, so that the spirits don’t take them and animals are usually tied to the houses so that they don’t impede the arrival of the souls to the house. It is also forbidden to hunt or sew incase the bullets scare the souls or their skin gets sewn.
Paseo de Las Animas
So although Hanal Pixan is a homely, private and familial time, Merida celebrates annually with an event called ‘Paseo de las Animas’, which celebrates and aims to conserve the Yucatan’s unique Dia de Muertos traditions whilst allowing visitors to experience some of the traditions.
It usually takes place on the night of the 1st of November and consists of a parade of ‘animas’ or souls, through the streets of the centre, symbolising the passage of the souls back to their homes.
Locals put out their altars in the street and sell traditional food. There is music and story telling and thousands of people come dressed as animas and in typical Yucatecan clothing.
Its a lovely chance to see what a vibrant and traditional festival Hanal Pixan really is.
I got into the spirit of things and came in my huipil with my face painted as an anima.
I loved experiencing Hanal Pixan in the capital of the Yucatan. I love the Mexican outlook in which life and death are not separate entities but part of the same world, playing together and coinciding. For me, Mexicans’ belief in a life beyond death is both comforting and sensible and having a time of year dedicated to remembering with affection our passed away loved ones is very important.