November 2, 2018
A friend told me this morning that he had just made a large bowl of rice pudding with cinnamon, raisins, and lots of sugar, enough to last through the week. Making the same dish his mother made every Sunday when he was growing up in Portugal is his All Souls Day tradition - a ritual means of reconnecting with family long after they are gone. It exemplified for me why Hanal Pixan in Yucatán is such an important holiday.
Dia de Muertos makes itself felt in every aspect of Mexican life. Pan de muertos, orange-flavored rolls dusted with sugar, have been available for over a month. Skull shaped candies, decorative skeletons, make-up, costumes, and seasonal toys are in all the stores. In the cemeteries graves are cleaned and adorned with flowers. In Mérida’s Mejorada Park the Camino de Flores, a display of seasonal flowers, highlights the cempesuchil (marigolds) most often associated with the holiday. Everyone consults local papers to see where public altars will be erected to honor the dead, when the major parades will occur, and what their routes will be.
The holiday has unique roots and traditions in Yucatán that vary slightly from most of the country. The infiltration of American Halloween, with its focus on the ghoulish and macabre, increasingly popular in other parts of Mexico, is minimal here, where the festival is called Hanal Pixan, “Food of Souls” in the Mayan language. As the name suggests, the holiday here is all about food and what it symbolizes.
Hanal Pixan (ha-NAL pi-SHAN) is a melding of ancient Mayan and hispanic traditions. For millennia the Maya, like most Mexican cultures, observed a festival honoring deceased ancestors. In colonial times this was shifted to coordinate with the Christian celebration of All Saints and All Souls, the first and second of November. Fortuitously, these days occur at the peak of the corn harvest, so Hanal Pixan is also a celebration of all that corn, Mexico’s most emblematic staple, has brought to the country.
Mayan legend tells that man was created three times. First, he was formed out of mud, but mud was malleable, and melted in the rain. The second iteration was made of wood, but lacked a heart, and was cruel. This batch was destroyed in a universal flood. Finally, the gods took corn from the heavens and created humans with a living and indestructible soul. Corn and humans have been inseparable since.
As elsewhere in Mexico, altars are constructed in homes to honor the dead. Photos of those deceased for more than one year adorn the altar, along with candles, candies, and flowers. Foods prepared and placed on the altars include chocolate, atole nuevo - a drink made from fresh ground corn and sugar - and most important, the mucbipollo, or pib, a giant tamale eaten only during Hanal Pixan.
The pib (from the Mayan word for roasting) refers not just to the food, but to a hole dug in the ground in which wood is lighted and stones arranged to capture the heat. Food is wrapped in banana leaves, buried in the hot chamber, covered and left to cook slowly, rendering meat incredibly tender. The renown pollo pibil (chicken) and cochinita pibil (pork) - first marinated in a mixture of ground achiote (annatto seeds), and sour orange juice - are both traditionally roasted in this manner, though today more practical folks are just as likely to cook them in the oven!
In pre-hispanic times the dead were buried beneath the house, and after time had passed, the skulls were dug up, cleaned, and retained as a reminder of the departed beloved, and a reminder of the congruence between life and death. The emergence of the mucbipollo from the pib, where it was buried and cooked, is a metaphor for the transformation and return of loved ones at Hanal Pixan.
To assemble the mucbipollo, corn is ground into masa and mixed with espelon, the Yucatecan bean similar in appearance and taste to black-eyed peas. Some of the masa is mixed with water and achiote for cooking the chicken, turkey or pork. Once cooked, the broth (called “khol”) and meat are sandwiched between layers of masa, then wrapped in banana leaves. The result looks like an enormous tamale which is traditionally cooked in the pib. Everyone seems to have their own tweak on this formula, and each October there is a fiesta where people can try dozens of unique versions.
But behind the carnival-like atmosphere that pervades the season, there is a deeply spiritual element to partaking of this food, the divine corn from which humans are said to have emerged. It is a means of ritually connecting with the ancestors. As one is taught to honor ancestors as a child, one is comforted knowing that long after one is gone, the family will still be venerating them as they share in this tradition.
On the night of October 31, Yucatecans line the paths to their homes with candles to direct the souls of children as they return. The following night the souls of adults are said to arrive, but without needing the lights to assist them. The souls are believed to partake of the spiritual essence of the food left out for them, and the living will consume the physical portions the next day. Thus the memory of the dead is kept alive.
On the evenings leading up to November 2 processions wind solemnly through the narrow streets of Mérida, wearing traditional Yucatecan clothing, but with faces painted like skulls, a reminder of the precarious line that separates life and death. We are reminded of the fragility of life and the importance of making each day count. It is a celebration of the past, the present and the future.
In Yucatán the altars remain for eleven days, and in some villages throughout the month of November, when souls are believed once more to depart.