Food for the Souls: the Celebration of Hanal Pixan

A Mayan celebration of the famous Mexican holiday Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), Hanal Pixan is a time for family and friends to honor the memories of their deceased ancestors. Over the first two days of November, spirits are believed to return to the earth for a celebration of food, drink, and prayer. Their graves are decorated with gifts and fruit and altars are prepared with photographs, the iconic Mexican sugar skulls, and colorful flowers.


Mexican Sugar Skulls


In Mayan tradition, death comes in waves. The first death is, of course, a literal one and comes the moment that the human body ceases to function. A second death occurs with burial as the body is returned to the earth. Hanal Pixan is considered so important, though, because of the third kind of death: the end that comes when a person is no longer remembered or thought of by those still living. The stories and dances, poems and prayers that are characteristic of these days are meant to preserve the memory of those deceased, to help their spirits have some kind of immortality.


The first day of Hanal Pixan is devoted to the souls of lost children. Graves are covered with toys and sweets, honeycombs and fruits. Next to pictures and braided marigolds family members heap papayas, mandarins, jicamas, and homemade tamales. The second day, then, is reserved for the souls of the adults. Gifts are offered, favorite meals are prepared, and drinks and chocolates are placed on graves and altars as homage. Mukbil Pollo (“chicken to be put in the ground”) is the traditional chicken and pork dish of the holiday and shows just how much a tool of nostalgia food is in Mayan culture. The tamale-like pie is cooked underground in ovens known as pibs, in the very earth in which the visiting ancestors’ bodies have been buried. Through this meal, the connection between past and present is preserved. Mukbil Pollo is traditionally served with spiced hot chocolate, helpings of which are also left on altars as appreciative offerings.


At the end of the holiday, the visiting spirits are believed to make their way back to the earth until the following year. Locals place candles on their windowsills and throughout the streets in a tradition known as the Bix to help guide them safely back.

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