Glowing psychedelic skulls grin at me. The dead are alive … Today is the Day of the Dead. What the Maya call Hanal Pixan. The Mexican Day of the Dead is related to America’s love of Halloween – horror movies, sugar-crazed trick or treat kids and inanely grinning pumpkins.

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Wanna buy a souvenir? No shortage of skull-themed goodies. (Reflections of a store window in Merida)

But in Mexico it’s more focused on street parties, cartoon skulls and devout, family picnics cleaning graves.

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Maya ceremony in the town square of Merida

Either way, the origins of this festival merge.

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Faces at Maya HANAL PIXAN festival in Merida

It’s no secret that all cultures across the planet across time have respected and remembered their ancestors in some ritualized way (for example in China, it’s known as Qing Ming: Tomb Sweeping Day).

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Night of the Dead … Skull-painted Mayan women in ceremony on the streets of Merida

But the origins of Halloween go back over 2000 years to the Celts in Britain and Ireland. They celebrated Samhain (pronounced Sow-in) at the end of Autumn, when they understood that winter brought more deaths; this was the time to connect with their dead with bonfires, food, and masks.

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LEFT: violence in society; RIGHT: shrine to a boy’s premature death; offerings on the table

Later Christianity arrived, Samhain was assimilated into the Medieval holidays of All Hallows’ Eve, Hallowmas, and All Souls’ Day (October 31, November 1 and 2).

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‘Buskers’ outside a restaurant on the Day of the Dead in Merida, Mexico

So how does this relate to the Maya? A world away from Europe?

Well, with the arrival of Columbus there followed fortune-seekers, soldiers and missionaries flooding the Americas. And these – often, over-zealous – Christians were hell-bent on local conversions. So like that earlier era in Europe, local customs were incorporated into conquering Christian beliefs to win over converts.

So a once-ancient Mayan ritual of worshipping the Gods of Death (like: Ixtab & Ah Puch) became a day for dead relatives. And in other parts of Mexico, Aztec customs also became part of this colonizing process. (Although the Spanish truly believed they were rescuing the locals from the grips of Satan; you know – human sacrifices, trophy skulls, etc).

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Ceremony during the Day of the Dead

Hanal Pixán – which means something like: ‘Food of the Souls’ – is celebrated on October 31st across all places of Mayan influence in Mexico; which today is the south, including the Yucatan Peninsula.

Naturally, at any festivity, food is piled high. And drinks are aplenty too.

The Maya present decorated tables of ornate offerings: flowers; traditional candies made of pumpkin, yuca, sweet potato; tortillas; bread; maize; fruit like mandarins and grapefruit; cigarettes and strong alcohol.

… I gulp my beer. There is a skull grinning at me. He looks menacing; glad he’s dead.

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