Hanal Pixan: How people celebrate the Day of the Dead in Yucatan


June 25, 2020

Hanal Pixan is more than a celebration. It's a tradition you should experience in Yucatan.

Mexico is a culturally rich country and the Hanal Pixán is evidence of that, as it is a Mayan tradition that honors the dead year after year. The Day of the Dead in Yucatan is a unique, colorful experience, full of history and feelings.

This time you will read everything you need to know about the Hanal Pixan so that you can witness this celebration on your next trip to Yucatán.

What is Hanal Pixan?

If you have visited the Yucatan before, then you know the importance of the culture in this state. There are many museums, cultural events, and festivities that promote the traditions of both the Yucatan and Mexico. It is not surprising that the traditions of the Mayan civilization such as Hanal Pixan are celebrated here to this day.

As mentioned in 'What is the climate of Merida, Yucatan', Hanal Pixan is a tradition to remember and honor the dead in a series of rituals from October 31st to November 2nd.

Each day of Hanal Pixan is celebrated with a different ritual:

  • October 31st is the day to remember the deceased children. Also known by its Mayan name U Hanal Palal.
  • November 1, also known as U Hanal Nucuch Uinicoob, is the day to remember adults.
  • And finally, on November 2nd, a mass is held in memory of all the souls, a ceremony also known as U Hanal Pixanoob.
On the Hanal Pixan altar, they place objects such as a white tablecloth, a green cross, candles, Mayan bowls also known as jícaras, offerings, and photos of the people who passed away.
On the Hanal Pixan altar, they place objects such as a white tablecloth, a green cross, candles, Mayan bowls also known as jícaras, offerings, and photos of the people who passed away.

Have you ever seen the Day of the Dead altars? Although at first glance the Hanal Pixan altars look similar, they are quite different. Both types of altars include food but traditional Hanal Pixan altars don't include pan de muerto.

There are three different types of Hanal Pixan altars: for adults, children, and lonely souls, the latter is for the souls that don't have family or friends.

And the main difference between both celebrations is the main dish of the Hanal Pixan: pib, a meal very similar to a Yucatecan tamale with seasoned chicken, a kind of gravy called k'ool, and other ingredients. The most interesting feature of pib is that it is traditionally baked in a cooking pit.

In Yucatan, preparing food for the Hanal Pixán is a family activity. According to tradition, each member of the family must help to make the pib.

Hanal Pixan is a Mayan term that means food for the souls. It is believed that during this festivity, the souls return to visit the world of the living, and that is why Yucatecan families put up altars to welcome their deceased relatives.

Fun fact: Janal Pixan is the correct way to write the name of this festivity, however, the term Hanal Pixan is commonly used.

Hanal Pixan is also a sign of mestizaje, as it combines elements of Mayan culture and Catholicism.

The Day of the Dead and the Hanal Pixan

And how does the Hanal Pixan relate to the Day of the Dead? Are they the same thing?

To understand more about the Hanal Pixan it is also important to know about the Day of the Dead.

This celebration is undoubtedly one of the most well-known cultural representations in the world: it has been featured in movies, series, books, among others. And it is not for less: the Day of the Dead is considered Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Person disguised as a catrina.
On the Day of the Dead, people dress up as La Catrina, a satirical representation of dead.

Death has always been fascinating for mankind. Even ancient civilizations had rituals to honor the people who passed away.

It is known that the Mayans, Mexicas, Purepechas, and Totonacs honored their ancestors in different ways, so the origin of the Day of the Death goes back to the Mesoamerica time.

On November 1 and 2, souls are welcomed to visit their families and friends.

The traditional altars have candles, incense, salt, marigolds, the famous sugar skulls, and pan de muerto, as well as favorite food, liquor, and sweets.

So the Hanal Pixan has the same purpose as the traditional Day of the Dead but the former is a Mayan tradition, while the Day of the Dead is a combination of various customs of the ancient civilizations of Mesoamerica.

The people of Yucatan make an effort to preserve all their culture and history.

What's on a Mayan altar?

As mentioned earlier, the Hanal Pixan altar is similar to the Day of the Dead altar.

Altars can be placed anywhere in the house. The Mayans used to make special tables for this holiday, however, today any table is good for the altar.

Each altar is unique. Even though they share several elements, families put up personal offerings.

Altar decoration

The altar of Hanal Pixan must have a white tablecloth with flower embroidery. The color white represents the clouds.

In addition, it is decorated with marigolds and globe amaranth since the color of those flowers represent the east and the south.

Marigolds are used for both Canal Pixan and Day of the Dead altars.

A green cross is placed in the center of the altar, a combination between the Catholic religion and the Mayan culture, since the green color symbolizes the Ya'axché, the Sacred Mayan Ceiba.

Black or white candles, incense, and 5 jícaras - four in the corners and one in the center - are some of the objects placed on the altar. Water, chocolate, or atole can be poured into the jícaras.

The Hanal Pixan meal

If you've read our post about the top 10 must-try dishes from the Yucatan Peninsula, you surely know the importance of food in the Mexican culture.

Since it is a celebration, the Yucatecans prepare delicious dishes to welcome their loved ones.

The pib is the main dish of the Hanal Pixan and all the members of the family help to cook it.

Cooking pib is an art. The main ingredients are fresh chicken, masa, banana leaves, tomato, onion, epazote leaves, chili, and a type of gravy called k’ool. The chicken is seasoned with achiote paste, while the k'ool is prepared with chicken broth and masa.

The masa is shaped like a bowl and filled with the chicken and vegetables. After sealing it, it is wrapped with softened banana leaves. Then, pib is cooked in a cooking pit with wood and stones for about an hour.

Pib is more than just food. Its preparation is a Hanal Pixan tradition. So when you visit the Yucatan, don't forget to try this dish.

Hanal Pixan altar.
Seasonal fruits and candies are also offerings for the Hanal Pixan altar.

Tortillas are essential in the Mexican diet. They are used to complement almost any meal, but the handmade tortilla is prepared for the special occasion.

Cochinita pibil, relleno negro, puchero and frijol con puerco are other dishes that can be offered in Hanal Pixan.

On the other hand, the pumpkin seed candy - which is prepared with sugar, egg, pumpkin seeds and coloring - and the yucca, coconut, papaya, sweet potato and marzipan sweets are some of the special desserts for Hanal Pixan.

The traditional drinks are atole or hot chocolate, but some people also serve water and the favorite drink of the person who is remembered.

The memories of the departed

Souvenirs are indispensable on the altars of the Hanal Pixan. These objects serve to remember and honor the souls that visit the living.
The altars are used to place photographs, some of their belongings or things they liked while they were alive.

In addition, food is usually served according to the tastes of the honored people, to give them a treat.

Another custom of both the Day of the Dead and Hanal Pixan is to serve the souls' favorite liquors and drinks. For example, wine, coffee, soda, etc.

As mentioned above, the purpose is to welcome the souls.

The Festival of Souls in Merida

The Festival of Souls is a celebration organized by the City Council of Merida, Yucatan. This event aims to preserve the tradition of Hanal Pixan.

During this celebration you can attend the Paseo de las Animas, honor the dead and visit the Camino de Flores.

Surely when you think of Mexico, flowers, day of the dead skulls, good food and many colors come to mind. You can find all this in the Camino de las Flores, a corridor full of flowers related to the Hanal Pixan.

Many of the residents of Merida, Yucatan visit the Camino de las Flores as a family to take pictures and spend a nice afternoon.

If you are interested in living this experience, the Camino de las Flores will be installed from October 25 to November 17, next to the La Paz Park, between Calle 59 and Calle 6.

Banner of real estate developments in Merida.

In the Paseo de las Animas you can enjoy exhibitions of Pok ta Pok -the sport of the ancient Mesoamerican civilizations-, live pre-Hispanic music, folk dances, plays and shows.

This celebration is full of color and music. The attendees dress up in the typical Yucatecan costume or disguise themselves as catrinas.

If you have never been able to experience the Hanal Pixan or Day of the Dead, we suggest you attend the Paseo de las Animas to enjoy the culture of Yucatan like never before.

Hanal Pixan is more than a celebration

The tradition of the Hanal Pixan is more than a celebration.

It is not only about the celebration itself, but about its meaning: the spiritual connection with our departed loved ones. That's why they are honored by welcoming them, so they can taste pib.

All of this makes a good reason to invest in Merida. Besides the Hanal Pixan, there are many beautiful and colorful customs throughout the year. In Merida you can always celebrate and learn something new about the culture of Yucatan.

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