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Día de Los Muertos or Hanal Pixán: What’s the difference?

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Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Born in Mérida, Carlos Rosado van der Gracht is a Mexican/Canadian blogger, photographer and adventure expedition leader. He holds degrees in multimedia, philosophy and translation from universities in Mexico, Canada and Norway. Sign up for the Yucatán Roundup, a free newsletter, which delivers the week's top headlines every Monday.
Paper mache skeletons are a common expression of traditional Mexican folk art and can be seen around all year, but are closely associated with Día de Los Muertos. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

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.

In the Yucatec-Maya language, Hanal Pixán means food of the dead, hinting perhaps to the centrality of food to the tradition. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht 

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. 

Candy skulls made out of sugar have long been popular for Día de Los Muertos in Central México, and have also become so in Yucatán. When arranged in great numbers, they somewhat resemble a Tzompantli, or Teotihuacan rack of skulls. Photo: Courtesy

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. 

Hanal Pixán altars are traditionally split up into three levels to reflect the three planes of existence — the underworld below, the land of the living in the middle, and the heavens above. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

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.

Cempasúchil (marigold) flowers to decorate altars commemorating the lives of loved ones traces back to ancient Teotihuacan. Cempasúchil, meaning 20 petals in the Náhuatl language, was believed to be necessary for spirits to visit the realm of the living by following a path made up of petals. Photo: Courtesy

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.

Families typically adorn altars with photos of their deceased loved ones and fill them with their favorite foods, and sometimes even their favorite vices such as cigarettes and liquor. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

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. 

In some communities, it is common for children to wrap a red or black cloth around their hands to keep grieving spirits from taking them to the realms of the dead. Photo: Courtesy

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.

A solemn procession through the streets of Campeche. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

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.

Though traditions surrounding Hanal Pixán are richly infused with Mayan beliefs and rituals, Catholicism, the largest religion on the Peninsula, also plays a large role. A cross made out of Cempasúchil (marigold) petals stands as a perfect example of religious syncretism. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

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.

Unlike altar exhibitions downtown Mérida, altars in Pomuch tend to be much more private. Photo: Guillermo Novelo

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. 

Pan de Espelón tends to be thinner and crunchier than mucbipollo, but it is still plenty heavy and caloric thanks to all of that lard and pork. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

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. 

During the Paseo de Las Animas, thousands of locals and tourists make a procession from the Pantheon Florido on Calle 66 to the Church of Ermita de Santa Isabel — with many wearing elaborate costumes and makeup. Photo: Courtesy

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.

If you feel like carving a pumpkin in Yucatán for Halloween, I say go for it. Maybe just keep it off the altar. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

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.

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