In Yucatán, we commonly refer to All Saints and All Souls Days – as Hanal Pixan. For the Maya, physical death does not mean extinction, but rather it ushers in a different dimension of existence. The Maya believe that the dead walk among us but on another plane.
Many Yucatecan people maintain this belief, and they find a way to respect the ancient ways. Yet they keep their traditions within the context of their Catholic faith by incorporating Christian symbols and prayers into the rituals of the days of the dead.
It is generally believed that the living can perceive the dead but cannot usually be in their presence. However from October 31st – November 2nd a window opens and the departed are able to enter the land of the living.
Hanal Pixan is actually translated as “food for the souls.” During this period, Yucatecan families remember their deceased loved ones and speak of them as though they are still alive. They remember funny anecdotes and repeat the advice the person used to give. They build an altar to welcome them. In typical Yucatecan fashion, they feel the need to feed them and special dishes are prepared: mucbil pollo (also known as pib) – a type of chicken pie, atole nuevo – a gruel made from new corn, and xec – a mandarin orange and jicama salad.
On the altars, they place a crucifix (religious syncretism is always present) They light candles to show their loved ones the way back home, and display photographs so that they will not be confused about where their place is. To feed the souls, the above mentioned food and other favorite objects are present on the altars. For example a bottle of rum might be set out for those who enjoyed the occasional little nip, or pack of cigarettes and matches will be provided for those who liked to smoke… toys are left for the dead children. A glass of water and a pinch of salt are laid out to quench the thirst. Vases are filled with flowers, amor seco – a small purple bloom, as well as cempasuchil – marigolds, the central Mexican flowers associated with this season of the year.
In the campo santo – the grave yard there, other special rites can be observed. Families clean the headstones and apply fresh paint to spruce them up. Colorful flowers cover every square centimeter of the grave site. And more prayers are recited.
Hanal Pixan is not a morbid celebration. It is a time of tradition… of thanksgiving and remembrance.