By: Victor Román
The «Hanal pixán», or food for the souls of the dead, is a tradition of the Mayan people that is carried out to remember friends and relatives who have passed on. It is a special event for the relatives of the deceased, because they know that from October 31 to November 2, the souls «receive permission» to visit their relatives.
The first day, U HANAL PALAL, is dedicated to children who have passed on. The second day, U HANAL NUCUCH UINICOOB, is dedicated to the adults. The third day, U HANAL PIXANOOB, is called «misa pixán» in some places, because there is a mass dedicated to the souls, usually in a local cemetery.
The celebration Hanal Pixán finds its roots in customs of Catholic evangelizers (which in turn are derived from Celtic celebrations and their own theological traditions) and certain pre-Hispanic Mayan features. Over the years, their customs have undergone changes with the arrival of the conquistadors and missionaries, who adapted old traditions to religious beliefs and created traditions that practiced to this day. The origins of this celebration go back to the year 835 when the Christian church designated November 1st as the day of the deceased saints. It was then changed in the year 1222 at the Oxford Council in France, to November 2nd. However, in many Mayan populations, offerings to the deceased are made throughout eight “official” days, or at the end of November, which is known as «biix».
On the one hand, the pre-Hispanic Mayans did not have a fixed or established date to celebrate or commemorate the dead. In keeping with the custom of burying the dead inside foundations of their homes, or taking advantage of hollows such as caves and sinkholes, and in extraordinary cases building exclusive buildings to keep the bodies of special people. The pre-Hispanic Mayans practiced some kind of offering daily to dead ancestors in designated spaces inside their homes. Fray Diego de Landa makes a brief but rich description of the disposition of an altar dedicated to the dead. He shows the importance of the presence of the deceased in a space, for example, by using a clay figure that holds ashes of an ancestor. The idea of the return of the dead on any date did not exist. On the contrary, it is known that there is a pilgrimage between the levels of the yaxché (or ceiba, sacred tree) to reach one’s final destination, according to their acts.
On the other hand, the celebration of October 31st through November 2nd is a religious imposition that the first evangelizers made among the Mesoamerican peoples. This celebration derives, on the one hand, from ancient Celtic festivities. The festivities bid farewell to the passing year and its final harvests (October 31st) and believe in the return of the dead so that the crops can be shared with them along with the festivities of the next year to come (the Samhain). On the other hand, the adjustments of the Catholic Church to celebrate of all its martyrs (and all of the saints that were and were not canonized) also converge with the path of the history of Catholicism on the night of «the eve of the saints «on October 31. This celebration of English origin and Irish and American widespread growth, is now known as Halloween.
The insertion of dates and celebrations was facilitated by similarities that are believed to have been leveraged by the Spaniards. Among them is the cult of the cross (as the representation of the yaxché tree was interpreted or reinterpreted), an indispensable element in the Hanal Pixán table. Other Pre-hispanic Mayan elements are the provision of food and other accessories in the form of a cross (oriented to what they understood to be the sides of the world). As well as the distribution of 4, 7 and 9 water jugs, candles, and corn edibles . In worship of the dead there is a belief that the soul is immortal and that it returns each year to share appointed days with the living.
In the era of the evangelization and colonization, the Mayans set the table with branches from the X’colonché plant and four forks made of kivis tree wood. They did not use nails because they thought that the deceased would not want to go near the table in fear of getting hurt if there were nails or wires. Currently the table is set with any material, either for children, adults or a soul. The traditional materials that are typically used on the table are usually made of clay, wood and jícaras (bowls made from the fruit of the Jícara Tree). Although, it is worth mentioning that it is common to observe objects from other materials such as liquor bottles, photographs etc. among the offerings presented at the table.
The meaning of the tablecloth is attributed to the clouds. This is the result of a cross-cultural mixture that occurred during the colonization. While the European and Christian dichotomous worldview contemplates the existence of a heaven and hell, the Mayan worldview was richer, contemplating the existence of thirteen superior and nine inferior heavens (the last of these called Mitnal). Brightly colored tablecloths are used for children who have passed due to the festive and playful nature of their souls. White or gray tablecloths are used for adults as a sign of respect and solemnity.
During the festivity, the function of incense is to help with its light and aroma to make the «essence» of the food more pleasant to the souls. According to the Mayan belief, the food deposited on the altar is consumed spiritually by the souls, leaving behind only its physical presence. The food is then physically consumed by the living relatives (since it is considered that it only remains as a «shell» stripped of its vitalizing function). Resin extracted from the copal tree is burned because it is very appreciated for its pleasant aroma.
Two containers filled with salt and water, respectively, are placed on the altar. Their meaning has to do with the origin and end of life, or to provide the souls of the deceased against the «bad winds» through rituals of purification. According to tradition, these elements should not be missing from the table. Jícaras (called in Mayan Lec), small dishes or clay jars are usually used as containers. These elements also have the function of guiding the souls again to the other world, so that they do not become trapped in this one.
Surely the most characteristic element in the celebration is the Mukbil chicken or pib (buried, in the Mayan language). It is a kind of tamale or corn cake, filled with stews made with meat and various spices, mixed in a thick corn broth. This food is cooked inside a hole made in the earth, with a limestone base built into it. The base is heated with firewood, and then the pib is deposited and covered with earth that was dug up and leaves (without resins that damage the flavor). The cooking is achieved by the heat from the limestone bed. The materials used for the preparation of the hole come entirely from the Yucatan field. Such as the henequen leaves, whose fiber is also used to tie the banana leaf cover of the pib, and as mentioned earlier, various local herbs used for their aromas.
The firewood comes from the leguminous plant known in the Mayan language as chukum («the one that makes the arbón«). The stew is practically identical to the Cochinita Pibil. This food is placed on the table of the hanal pixán as the main dish. Although in homes without sufficient economic resources it is replaced by other dishes that are also considered typical of celebrations or parties, such as black stuffing.
Among the drinks that are placed on the altar are the Sa, atole, word of Nahuatl origin; Ak sa: new atole; Cikil sa: atole with nugget; So chucuá: atole with chocolate; Keyem: pozole, a word of Nahuatl origin; Chokó sakam: a drink made with boiled corn dough, Balché: a spirit drink made with tree bark.
Pib: roasted or cooked under the ground. A large tamale cooked under the ground is also referred to as Pib, pibipollo, or mucbipollo, but the last two terms have the Spanish word pollo; Chachac wajes: literally meaning very red bread, but usually referred to a type of red tamale, given color from achiote; Chilmole: stew made with burnt chili, meat, tomato and other legumes. The term is of Nahuatl origin, since chil is chile and mole is sauce, broth or stew; Chacbi nal: corn boiled in water. Chacbil is cooked and Nal means corn; Pibi nal: corn cooked under the earth; Xek: edible mixture made with orange, tangerine, jicama and other fruits, as well as ground chili; Chay wah: tamale made with chopped chaya; Pin: thick tortilla, since PIN means thick; Buli wah: omelette made with beans, which is cooked in a bain-marie or in the oven; Is wah: new corn tortilla, sweet or salty and toasted; Salbut: tortilla that is put under the skin and then fried to eat. The name is formed by Sal: light, and But: stuffing, that is, slightly stuffed.
A week later, the Bix is performed (also known as the Ochovario day of the deceased, the meeting or party that takes place eight days after some event) or octave, which is a kind of repetition less complicated than the previous one. On those nights, rows of candles are lit in front of doors and in the albarradas so that the souls see on the way in and out of town for their visit.
There is a belief that some days before the ceremony the souls come to wash their clothes and prepare to receive the tributes. They expect to be well treated by the living, who must give attention to the offerings of food, drinks, etc.. If this is not honored, it is thought that the souls might not return to the world of the living.