Usually when we talk about death in Mexico, what first comes to mind is the traditional Day of the Dead. But in my case, and in my annually celebrated festivity, what is honored is a tradition that takes place in the Yucatán Peninsula that sadly is not as acknowledged as the Day of the Dead, it’s called Hanal Pixan.
The portal of life opens and the souls of our loved ones are preparing to cross over to the world of the living, following the lights of the candles and guided by the smell of their favorite food. They are welcomed and it is time for the ceremony to begin. Every year around the end of October and the start of November, in the Yucatán Peninsula, the greatest fest is celebrated between the earth and the spiritual world.
The local community, deeply rooted in ancient Maya traditions, prepares for the Hanal Pixan, which roughly translates in English to “food for the souls,” a ceremony that has been carried on for centuries.
Hanal Pixan, like the Day of the Dead, originated from the old pre-Hispanic cultures that believed there was life after death. The Mayas, my ancestors, like any great civilization of the early ages, believed in the underworld, and therefore were very concerned about the future of their souls.
During the Hanal Pixan, it is believed that the souls travel through snake-shaped paths that connect the nine underworlds below the earth, as well as the thirteen heavens above it with the world of the living; over the course of a week, these spirits have an opportunity to return to their loved ones who are still alive. This explains why on October 31st, November 1st and November 2nd, we set up altars and go on with the ceremony: to make sure the deceased find the light needed to be guided through their journey from the afterlife to their homes here on earth.
The first day of the celebration, best known locally as u hanal palal, or “food for the kids.” It is the day when the spirits of the children are welcomed with candies and toys. (In my personal opinion, this day is the most nostalgic and heartwarming out of the three-day celebration.) The 1st of November is known as u hanal nucuch unicoob, when adults are celebrated with cigars and liquor. The last day, hanal Pixanoob or misa pixan, is the day where a mass is dedicated to the souls, usually in the cemetery.
Around the Hanal Pixan there are also some peculiar traditions. In the states of the peninsula, for example, it is customary for children to use a red ribbon on the right wrist during these days; these ribbons protect children from the spirits, since they can be “taken away” by them. In my experience, once when I was around nine years old, my stepdad decided to place the ribbon on my wrist a week before the celebration because he felt a “different vibe and harmony” inside the house, I did not question his intuition, since it’s common within my family to believe in these superstitions.
Another peculiar tradition is that the animals of the house and the cattle are tied, because they are able to see the souls and can prevent them from going to the altar in a peaceful way.
One of the most characteristic elements in the celebration is the Mukbil pollo; “mukbil” means “the one that must be buried” and “pollo” is chicken. It is a kind of big tamale, filled with stew made with meat and various spices, mixed with Kol (meat broth, cornstarch and achiote or spice); they are put together until a thick mixture is obtained. This food is cooked inside a hole made on the land, with a limestone base built into it. The base is heated with firewood, and then the mukbil is deposited and covered with the soil that was dug up and also leaves that do not have resin as to not affect the flavor. The cooking is completed by the heat of the limestone bed. This whole process represents the action of burying someone as a combination of what his/hers life was, and then bringing it out after a few days as a whole new and different soul.
This cooking preparation was explained to me a few years ago by one of my aunts, while I was helping her prepare a mukbil in her home. I remember clearly how she explained every single detail on how you are supposed to do each of the steps since there’s a lot of respect and love involved into this part of the celebration, and how I should be proud of being able to learn how to do this food.
The Hanal Pixan is a beautiful vestige of Mayan cosmology and an evidence of my “mestizo” roots. In spite of being a celebration of Mayan origin, the customs underwent changes with the arrival of the Spaniards and the missionaries, who adapted this old tradition and gave it a more religious aura. Still this customs continue to change, but that does not mean it is any less ours. I am proud and happy to mention that I am from the Yucatan Peninsula and that I still honor this tradition; thankfully my stepdad and his family introduced me and my brother to this ceremony, giving us this knowledge since we were really little, therefore we get to maintain this dying and unknown celebration.