Dia de Los Muertos is a well-known celebration in Mexico, taking place on October 31-November 2. It’s often considered the Latino equivalent of Halloween, but there are many important differences in these traditions. For Mexicans, Dia de Los Muertos is a time to remember and honor family and friends who have passed, accompanied by altars with pictures, special foods, and
visits to cemetaries. The Western tradition of Halloween focuses upon the scary and eerie aspects of the departed, when the veil between worlds becomes thin and visitations from ghosts more likely. In addition, there’s the Trick or Treat phenomenon, when children dressed in costumes bang on neighborhood doors demanding candy. If none is forthcoming, they’re supposed to do a trick such as toilet-papering your bushes.
Before the Spanish arrived in the 16th century, Los Muertos was at the beginning of summer. It was moved to the present date to coincide with the Christian traditions of All Saints’ Day, also called All Hallow’s E’en (which morphed to Halloween). Mexican traditions include building private altars (ofrendas) decorated with sugar skulls and marigolds, with plates of the deceased’s favorite
foods and beverages. They also visit graves with gifts, and bring possessions of the deceased to graves. Origins of the modern Mexican holiday can be traced to indigenous observances dating back hundreds of years, with distant threads to an Aztec festival dedicated to the goddess Mictecacihuatl.
Mayan Traditions: Hanal Pixan
Mayas in southern regions of Mexico have a tradition called Hanal Pixan (Food for the Souls). It is similar to Los Muertos as they build family altars, where they place pictures of the deceased, flowers, candles, favorite food and drink, and possessions. In Yucatan this has traditionally been a private celebration, but cities are encouraging Mayas to take part in public ceremonies that attract many tourists. Homes are swept and cleaned in anticipation of visits from ancestors’ souls, who rise from their graves during these nights to visit their families and homes. Tradition holds that if they don’t find the house
clean, they feel obliged to stay and help with cleaning. After altars are set up in the house, the family sits respectfully, often saying prayers or sharing remembrances. Later they have a feast, eating and drinking the special foods and liquors on the altar. In Merida, the capital of Yucatan, there is a Friday night event at L’Ermita colonia and a Saturday daytime event in the Plaza Grande in Merida Centro. Mayan groups build pole and thatch sheds in plazas, and put elaborately decorated altars inside. These pictures show typical Yucatecan Maya costumes and clothes (women in huipiles).
A charming tradition for Hanal Pixan tries to capture evidence of the departed soul’s visit. When the altar is completely decorated, fine cornmeal is scattered around in front of it. Everyone is careful to stay away from the cornmeal, which is left overnight. In the morning, if there are footprints left in the cornmeal, this is taken as evidence of a soul’s visit. In Yucatan special foods are prepared, based on ancient Mayan cuisine. The culinary delight of this celebration is mucbil pollo, commonly called pib (or pibe). The pib is a pit dug into the ground, in which a fire of logs is burned to glowing coals, then seasoned prepared meat (typically chicken or pork) is covered with masa (cornmeal) wrapped in banana
leaves and put inside the pit, which is filled with soil, and left to slowly bake for hours. Much preparation is required for this favorite food, when cooked traditionally as did the ancient Mayas (their meats were turkey, tapir and deer). Other foods include black beans cooked and pureed, tomatoes, corn, squash, and typical Yucatecan dishes such as papadzules, a corn tortilla filled with chopped hard boiled eggs and covered with a rich sauce made of ground pepitas (pumpkin seeds). Que rico!
Although the Mexican tradition of brujos is not connected with Los Muertos or Hanal Pixan, this term refers to sorcerers, magicians or witches and seems in keeping with a Halloween-type theme. Especially among the Mayas, every village has its brujo or bruja, a male or female sorcerer whose powers can be used for good or evil. The history of magical practices extends back to pre-Hispanic times and has shamanic roots. As currently practiced, these magical abilities combine Catholic rites, especially the invocation of saints,
with ancient Mayan beliefs and rituals. The brujos are much feared and respected by Mayas, their services sought when illness such as mal ojo happen. Mal ojo means “bad or evil eye” and is thought to be caused by a sending looks of evil intention at someone, usually a child. Brujos can be hired to both cause and cure mal ojo, and many other spiritual illnesses. When an illness is caused by a brujo or bruja, only another brujo/bruja can reverse or cure it. Villages also have h’men, a title for healers who use plant medicine, and are benign figures who also perform beneficial ceremonies such as calling the rain, the Cha-Cha’ak ceremony.
Here is a link to a Merida magazine, Yucatan Living, with an article about Hanal Pixan.