Food for the Souls: Hanal Pixán in the Yucatán (Information Current for 2019)

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In the darkness, they walk. Silently moving across the cobblestone street, pale apparitions illuminated by the flame of a single candle, their faces a ghostly white. Men, women, and children: they are the dead risen.

Food of the Souls

Hanal Pixán has its roots in Mayan culture.

Hanal Pixán is a cultural phenomenon that occurs every year in the Yucatán and coincides with the better known Mexican tradition of Dia de Muertos or Day of the Dead. Literally meaning “food of the souls,” Hanal Pixán combines both Mayan and Catholic traditions. In times past, the Mayans venerated the defunct, daily leaving them offerings in a corner of their homes. With the arrival of the Spanish and the imposition of Christianity, this practice evolved to coincide with All Saint’s Day and All Souls Day. Today, Mayan descendants, like most Mexicans, remember children who have passed away on October 31, adults on November 1, and the faithful on November 2.

Altars are used to welcome back the deceased.

For those living in the Yucatán, Hanal Pixán marks the return of the dead to the family home where they are received as honored guests. Preparation begins well before October 31, with families cleaning their abodes so that the deceased don’t feel the urge to partake in any household chores. Special altars are set up, decorated with the marigolds, colored candles, and other religious paraphernalia. The cross has special significance, not only as a Christian symbol but also as a representation of the Ceiba tree, sacred in Mayan culture as the link between the living and the dead.

CC Jaontiveros
Mukbil pollo or pib is a traditional food served during Hanal Pixán.

As you might have guessed, traditional food is central to Hanal Pixán and prepared in abundance. As October 31 approaches, the altars become succulent banquets for the dead. Of chief importance is the giant tamale, mukbil pollo (interred chicken), also called a pib, historically cooked in a underground pit.

pan de muerto is a simple bread made during Hanal Pixán.

Another staple is the semisweet pan de muerto (bread of the dead), which is often baked in the form of a bone. Other offerings include anything that the departed may miss in the afterlife, such as cigars and alcohol. Salt and water are also placed on the altar to purify the spirits. As a courtesy, most homes include a separate smaller altar or plate for those souls who have no family to remember them. In the Yucatán, the dead do not go hungry.

Paseo de las Ánimas
Typical altar erected during the Paseo de las Ánimas.
La Catrina is a popular Dia de Muertos icon throughout Mexico.

In Mérida, the capital of the Yucatán, Hanal Pixán has become more than just a day of remembrance but a weeklong celebration of Mayan culture and is well worth a visit. This year, the festivities kicked off on October 24 and include music, theater, art and more.

A family dressed for Paseo de las Ánimas.

The highlight, though, is the more recent tradition of the Paseo de las Ánimas (Passage of Souls), where thousands of locals dressed in traditional white huipil tunics and guayabera shirts, their faces painted to resemble skulls, recreate the walk of the dead as they leave the cemetery and find their way home. Along the route and in Mérida’s various parks are altars erected by the families of Mérida. Some are no more than humble tables with faded photographs barely visible in the dim candlelight. Wandering through the cities colonial streets during Paseo de las Ánimas is both a macabre and deeply touching experience.

A simple altar can be very moving.

But Hanal Pixán isn’t just about death. It’s also a celebration of the eternal soul, and to that end, you can expect Mérida’s bars and clubs to be packed. Part celebration, part remembrance, Hanal Pixán is something akin to holding a wake at a pub and bringing your kids along for good measure. The mood, however, changes quite dramatically after October 31 when families generally stay home or picnic with their loved ones (both living and dead) in the cemetery.

Attending Hanal Pixán

The Paseo de las Ánimas leaves the Cementerio General on October 31 at 7PM (the exhibition of altars usually begins a bit earlier). The “souls” will march along Calle 66 and 64 to the San Juan Park near the center of the city. In addition, the city of Mérida will be holding a number of cultural events between October 25 and November 2, including the Festival del Pib (October 27), which showcases the traditional food of Hanal Pixán.  A full schedule is available here.

Drink with Locals

If you do happen to find yourself in Mérida, stop in at La Vizcaina Bar off of Parque de Santiago. It’s a friendly, slightly upscale, local hangout that serves a good michelada (beer mixed with Worcestershire sauce). And if that doesn’t sound tasty, they usually have an assortment of bottled Mexican microbrews to quench your thirst.

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