Hanal Pixan Altars

Its that time of year again; Hanal Pixan, Mayan for ‘comida de las animas’, is upon us and we are all busy stuffing our face with pib and pan de muerto whilst families remember their loved ones and prepare altars in their homes to welcome back their souls for a feast.

On Saturday 29th October, a couple of days before the Hanal Pixan (click to read last year’s entry about this unique tradition) festivities started in Merida, I had the chance to see dozens of beautiful altars right in the heart of the city.


This was the ‘Muestra de Altares’, in which people from towns and villages near Merida, as well as schools and government offices, came to the city and set up their traditional altars in the Plaza Grande. It is part of a wider push by the local government to fund events with the aim of preserving local customs and traditions. The invasion of ‘halloween’ culture looms in Yucatan and this event, much like the Paseo de las Animas, highlights and promotes the cultural importance of Hanal Pixan, by taking what is a traditionally private celebration out from behind closed doors and into the streets.

Some of the altars, seen from behind

It was a lovely event, purely for the amount of people from all walks of life ‘conviviendo’. There were people there representing Progreso, Cuzama, Uman, Tecoh, Tixkokob, Tekat, the Merida Arts school, the UADY, to name just a few! The square was buzzing;  Spanish, Mayan and English voices mixed together as locals, tourists and visitors from the nearby towns mingled and enjoyed sharing this most wonderfully Yucatecan tradition; its food and culture.

Offerings to the souls who visit on November 1st and 2nd

It was so interesting to walk around and see how each group had set up their altar; all of the different things they left out as an ‘ofrenda’ to their loved ones, the construction of the traditional mayan wood and palm leaf huts, the photos, the incense, the flowers.

Some villages held ‘rosarios’ or prayer sessions to honor their dead, some handed out delicious seasonal food such as Pib, Xek and pan de muerto.


There were smiling faces everywhere and everybody I spoke to was happy to explain the elements of their altar to me and to talk about how they celebrate this time of year in their family.

I have previously written about Hanal Pixan altars on this blog, but for a quick recap, these are the things you will find on a traditional altar;

  • Photos of the loved ones who are being remembered (or no photo at all if it is an altar for the ‘forgotten’ souls).
  • A Catholic cross on the third tier of the altar, which represents heaven.
  • Candles; white for adults, coloured for children. They are placed on the altar itself and forming a little pathway leading up to it. They are said to guide the souls back home with their light.
  • A jicara of water and a bit of salt, to symbolise purification.
  • Cempasuchil flowers (marigolds) or other wild flowers.
  • Incense, which carries the smell of the lovingly prepared food up to the souls to invite them down to feast
  • Sweets (dulce de ciruela, yuca , marzipan), seasonal fruits (mandarin, jicama, grapefruit), the deceased’s favourite food or drink (coca cola is a common choice!) and many traditional dishes such as pib, pan de muerto, tacos de relleno negro, escabeche, atole, hot chocolate…
  • A white table cloth for adults, a colourful embroidered one for children. (When you have someone over for a special dinner, you don’t just serve the food off the table – you put out a lovely, clean table cloth – well, the same for this special food for the souls.)
  • Their favourite cigarettes or beer, or wooden toys if its for a child.

Take a look at this great little video for an animated way of understanding the elements of the Hanal Pixan altars!

I walked away not only feeling full from all of the delicious food but also happy to have learned so much, to have seen so many wonderful altars, and to have witnessed once again the richness of the Yucatecan and Mayan culture.

Women dressed in the traditional ‘terno’ yucateco
Hand-made tortillas de maiz….delicious


A cup of Xek handed out to me – so refreshing.

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