Merida, Yucatan — More than 67,000 costumed face-painted people took part in this year’s Paseo de las Ánimas, for Day of the Dead, or Hanal Pixan, as it is called here.
As the sun set, trova music was everywhere. The air was filled with the scent of incense and sweet xtabentun, the honey-fermented liqueur. Above, a crescent moon shown through some clouds that threatened rain.
The cobblestone path from Ermita park to San Juan arch was lit by candles held by the participants as they passed flower-filled altars that honored the dead.
The ritual has grown by leaps and bounds since Merida began the Paseo in 2010 with about 5,000 people. The event transformed a private, family affair to a public spectacle. In 2013, the crowd size was more like 20,000. By 2014, the event drew twice that amount, and city officials began to notice younger participants, and more tourists. National Geographic Traveler covered the Paseo in print that year. In 2016, it didn’t seem like the Paseo de las Ánimas could get any more popular, with 50,000 attendees.
“There is no such thing as the excitement of being part of the traditions of our dear Mérida sharing these moments with the family and remembering that those who came before us are always with us,” said Mayor Renán Barrera, who led the procession.
Today, Day of the Dead is synonymous with Mexico, but these celebrations were fading away in Mexico by the 1960s, considered by “educated” Mexicans to be embarrassing superstitions of “ignorant” rural communities. But by the 1970s, the federal government started aggressively promoting Day of the Dead for tourism, including in many parts of the country that had never celebrated it before.
Most of today’s public Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico and the United States are largely invented traditions that, like all cultural practices, grow and change with the times, said Regina Marchi, associate professor of journalism and media studies at Rutgers University.
Hanal Pixan is the name given to the Day of the Dead celebrations of the Maya people on the Yucatan Peninsula. The term is Mayan for “food of souls,” and food takes on a special meaning this time of year.
Traditional dishes are prepared for the spirits who are believed to return on this day to visit their families. Families set up an altar at home and often apply fresh paint to grave sites. The spirits of children who have died return on the night of Oct. 31 and a special offering is prepared for them that include toys and sweets.
The spirits of adults come the following night, and offerings on the altar can include alcoholic beverages. On the third day, a special mass is said for the souls of the dead.
Maya people may tie a red or black string around the wrist of their children, believing that it will protect them from the spirits. The spirits are not seen as malevolent, but they may play tricks or become jealous of babies and small children. It is also customary to tie up animals that usually roam free so that the animals will not get in the way of the spirits.
Mucbipollo, a kind of oversized tamale, is named for the Mayan muc, which means buried and bi means baked, and pollo, or chicken in Spanish. It is the food most associated with Hanal Pixan.
That too is set out for the dead to enjoy. Later, the living will consume what is left. It is also customary to put out a plate for lonely souls who don’t have anyone to remember them.
Numerous altars are still set up in the Plaza Grande and graves are decorated and freshly painted at the cemetery.
Sources: Punto Medio, Trip Savvy, Georgetown University