As the weeks continue to fly by, Yucatecos are eagerly awaiting the arrival of one of the region’s favorite holidays, Hanal Pixán — Yucatán’s version of Día de Los Muertos, or Day of the Dead.
For many not familiar with these celebrations beyond what they learned by watching the animated film “Coco,” the two may appear interchangeable, but let me assure you, saying so out loud in front of a Yucateco would be a major faux pas.
But to be fair, Día de Los Muertos and Yucatán’s Hanal Pixán do share many aspects. These include the setting up of elaborate altars and family visits to cemeteries. That being said, Hanal Pixán really does have a character all its own.
Dia de Los Muertos is observed Nov. 1 and Nov. 2 to coincide with the Catholic festivities of All Souls Day and All Saints Day. However, many of the most popular customs associated with El Día de Los Muertos trace their roots back to several pre-hispanic cultures.
In Yucatán, Hanal Pixan begins Oct. 31 and continues through Nov. 2. Just like during Día de Los Muertos celebrations elsewhere in the country, people in Yucatán believe that during these special days the dead are able to travel to the human world to enjoy some time with their loved ones, as well as their favourite foods.
During Hanal Pixan, every day is assigned differently. The first day (and night) is dedicated to children who have passed away. Thus, it is common to see altars on Oct. 31 being full of toys and candy.
On Nov. 1 it is the adults’ turn. Tradition in Yucatán says that photographs of loved ones can only be placed on the altar a full calendar year after the person passed away since before that time his or her spirit would not be permitted to cross back over, as it would be considered too soon.
The food and drinks placed on altars should not be touched, much less consumed until the next day, after the spirits of the deceased have had an opportunity to enjoy it for themselves.
On Nov. 2, the altars are restocked for children and adults alike. On this day it is traditional to attend a special mass to honor the dearly departed and offer up prayers for an easy passage between realms, as well as their souls in general.
Even within Yucatán, different regions observe Hanal Pixán with their own foods and traditions. One notable example is the town of Pomuch in Campeche, which aside from its huge concentration of bakeries is famous for its own particular take on the celebration. As morbid as it may sound to us, from time immemorial, locals in Pomuch have dug up the bones of their deceased loved ones to then clean them and display them on an altar.
As with everything in Yucatán, food plays an enormous role during Hanal Pixán with some of the most popular traditional dishes being the fruit salad known as Xec and the star of the show, mucbipollo or pib. The uninitiated may think of this as a pork and chicken stew pot pie, but it’s closer to a large tamale, cooked with corn dough, mixed with a handful of spices, and wrapped in banana tree leaves.
In some parts of the Yucatán Peninsula, locals have developed their own take on the giant tamale. For example in Valladolid and other communities in the east of the state of Yucatán, the most famous dish during Hanal Pixan is Pan de Espelón, which is stuffed with Valladolid’s famous Lomitos.
Over the past few decades, Mexico’s Día de Los Muertos has attracted much international attention, in part due to it being featured in Hollywood films and other media. In Yucatán, Hanal Pixán has undergone somewhat of a transformation, as it is no longer only a somber occasion to be observed at home, but a very public celebration complete with altar competitions and exhibitions. Also gaining in popularity is the Paseo de Las Animas in Mérida.
In recent decades, Halloween, which of course is celebrated at the same time of year has been gaining in popularity — especially among young people. There are those out there that see this imported holiday and a threat to local tradition. But in all honesty, just because kids decide they want to trick or treat does not mean that the old ways are in any true danger. El Día de Los Muertos and Hanal Pixán continue to be as popular as ever, and I have a hard time believing a few Milky Ways and Pumpkins could really change that.
So do what you will, whether you choose to celebrate El Día de Los Muertos, Hanal Pixán, Halloween or some sort of hybrid — just remember to be respectful.