The Day of the Dead is a holiday celebrated from the 31st of October until the 2nd of November to pray for and remember friends and family members who have passed away and help support their spiritual journey. In 2008, the Day of the Dead was listed on the Representative list of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO. Rituals celebrating the death of ancestors had been observed in pre-Columbian cultures as far as 2,500 to 3,000 years ago. Today, it is a public holiday and prior to Spanish colonization in the16th century, the celebration took place at the beginning of summer, in the ninth month of the Aztec calendar and was celebrated for an entire month. These festivities were dedicated to the goddess Mictecacihuatl, the lady of the Dead, corresponding to the modern Catrina, who has gained lots of popularity around the world in recent years.
The Day of the Dead consists of many ancient beliefs from different origins with several variations depending on the region. The 31st of October is devoted to children (little angles), the 1st to adults and the 2nd to all saints. On these days, there is no hunting or sowing because they believe their souls will get scared with the noise or that they might sow their skin.
Altars are built at home and people go to cemeteries to be with the souls of the departed. These altars usually have pictures and memorabilia of the deceased, candles, their favourite beverage and food, sugar skulls, atole, tamales, oranges, sweet bread (pan de muerto) and marigolds (cempasúchil) to encourage visits of the souls of the departed and copal incense is burnt to help guide them. These items are set on a vibrant colourful table cloth for the children, and a white or grey one for adults. Families also go the graves to decorate them and bring the departed their possessions and their favourite drinks and food so the souls will hear the prayers and comments directed to them.
In the Yucatán Peninsula, we celebrate Hanal Pixán meaning Food for the Souls, Hanal (food) and Pixán (Soul that gives life to the body). This celebration is a fusion of Mayan and Spanish traditions. Celebrations start way before the end of October, with the making of clay pottery and candles, table cloths being embroidered, etc. All chores must be done before the arrival of the souls, such as cleaning the house and making tortillas, as it would be a disgrace if the departed souls had to do any chores.
A bucket of water is left with the shell of a jícara (a recipient made out of the shell of the jícara fruit) so that the souls can wash themselves after their long journey.
Pillows and blankets are left out so the spirit can rest after the long journey and toys are brought for deceased children. Some people believe the spirit eats the “spiritual essence” of the food and after the festivities are done, some people have a picnic and eat the food, while others don’t eat it because they believe it lacks nutritional value.
At this time of year you will also children wearing a black or red bracelet on their right hand wrist. This is so the souls don’t take the children. Pets are also tied up as to not scare away the souls.
Mukbil pollo is the most characteristic element in mayan tradition and the food is what really sets apart Hanal Pixán from the Day of the Dead celebrations in the rest of Mexico. Similar to a tamal or corn bread, stuffed with meat and local spices mixed with a thick broth made of corn, it is then cooked in a hole underground made of porous stone that is heated with firewood which comes from the chum plant (pea) and covered with henequén (agave) plants and soil. In families with low income, they replace the mukbil pollo for relleno negro (turkey in a black chilli sauce). Some families save this dish for the end of November, when the souls continue on their journey, and this way they have enough food to sustain them until next year. Other families eat the mukbil pollo on the 2nd, mainly because traditions have changed and people don’t celebrate all month long.
As I was doing my research, I asked my maid Angeles how she celebrated Hanal Pixán and she told me a funny anecdote about her grandfather. Her paternal grandfather, Roberto, didn’t really celebrate the day of the dead because he didn’t really believe in it. One night when he was working as a security guard for the city Hall in Pixoy, Yucatán he saw a very big group of people coming towards him. He started asking himself why all these people were gathering there, sitting down on the ground and getting out food to eat, so he walked up to one of them and asked him “What are you doing here?” to which the man replied, “hold my candle, we’re eating, we’ve come from a different town and our on our way to another town” then all of a sudden they gathered all their things and continued on their journey. Roberto realized he was still holding the candle, so he yelled out to the group of people “hey, your candle!” but when he looked at the candle he realized it was a bone, and when he looked back at the big group of people all he could see was fog. He later buried the bone in the cemetery and from that day on started making an altar every year, giving food to the departed souls.
The Day of the Dead is a beautiful tradition to commemorate the dead, celebrate their life and remember them by recounting funny anecdotes and honour their favourite things. We hope this tradition continues on generation after generation and that you find some inspiration in this festivity to recall your lost loved ones in a different light.