Hanal Pixan: Maya Day of the Dead – Mexico

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Glowing psychedelic skulls grin at me. The dead are alive.

Today is the Day of the Dead.

What the Maya call Hanal Pixan is also known as The Day of the Dead across Mexico.

And Mexico’s Day of the Dead is like Halloween.

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

But instead of the American love of horror movies, sugar-crazed trick or treat kids and inanely grinning pumpkins, you find more a focus on street parties, cartoon skulls and picnics that include cleaning the graves of family.

Either way, the origins of these festivals merge.

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

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

However, the origins of today’s Halloween goes 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.

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

vendor-day-of-dead-mexico HANAL PIXAN
Many stalls and displays were set up in the town square as locals gathered to celebrate the Maya HANAL PIXAN festival in Merida.

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.

Like that earlier era in Europe, local customs were incorporated into conquering Christian beliefs to win over converts. So an ancient Mayan ritual of worshiping the Gods of Death (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 believed they were rescuing the natives from the grips of Satan. You know – human sacrifices, trophy skulls, etc).

Mexicans of Mayan descent in Merida for the Hanal Pixan festivities.

Hanal Pixán – meaning: ‘Food of the Souls’ – is celebrated on October 31st across Mayan Mexico.

Naturally, at any festivity, food is piled high.

For Hanal Pixan, Maya decorate tables with flowers, traditional candies made of pumpkin, yuca, sweet potato, and also with tortillas, bread, maize. And with fruit like mandarins and grapefruit, alongside cigarettes and strong liquor.

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


Travels in Mexico – 2010

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