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How to Observe Hanal Pixan: Day of the Dead Maya Style

A newly embroidered white tablecloth is stretched across a long narrow table. Lemony clouds of copal incense drift about the room, catching a bit of breeze from the single open door. Candles flicker in the dim light and marigolds offer their strong scent to guide the souls of loved ones to a feast.

Candles on a Hanal Pixan Altar
Candles on a Hanal Pixan Altar

It is Hanal Pixan, the Maya version of Day of the Dead, an observance that used to be celebrated at any time of the year before the Spanish came but is now celebrated during the first week of November. All the chores are done and the house is sparkling clean. All attention is on the moment at hand. Two salt bowl made of jicara are set on the table to cleanse the space and prevent mal viento (bad wind) from blowing through. The 7 bowls of atole, a thick corn drink, are all laid out, one in each corner for the 4 Bacabes who hold up the corners of the earth and the 4 boys who work in the field, and three in the center for the 3 hearth stones and the 3 girls who tend the comal where the tortillas are made. Photos of loved ones are displayed on the flowery table along with favorite items of those who have passed into the beyond: a bottle of tequila or rum, once loved trinkets, favorite foods, anything that might attract the attention of those souls and bring them comfort.

Hanal Pixan Altar
Hanal Pixan Altar

Outside, the mukbil pollo tamales slowly cook in the pib, a freshly dug pit layered with hot stones and earth. They are wrapped in banana leaves like gift packages and will be offered in the feast and then enjoyed by the living family afterwards. The yard has been raked and extended family members gather, enjoying the warm sunshine. Children play. Men attend the pib. And the women prepare other elaborate treats for the feast.

The pib used for cooking the Hanal Pixan tamales
The pib used for cooking the Hanal Pixan tamales

marigolds on a grave for Hanal Pixan
Marigolds on a grave for Hanal Pixan

At the gravesite, the tombstone has been carefully washed and fresh flowers have been laid out. Candles are at the ready to be burned during a midnight vigil. In the past, dead loved ones have shown their presence through familiar scents, odd sounds, and even moving objects. But no fear resides in this place. It is a meeting place, a place to honor those who have passed on and to celebrate a night to be together again.

Although there are parades, sugar skulls, costumes, and decorations all through the public places in the town, this is really a family time, a private time. It is a reflective time, a time to remember. And really the best way to observe it is to first open our hearts to the possibility that our loved ones can visit us too. Hanal Pixan is an ancient rite. It is about our connection to lives other than the one we can touch in this earthly incarnation.

So perhaps during this time (Oct 31 - Nov 7), you would like to set aside time to follow these lovely traditions in your own home. It is an easy, cleansing and heartwarming thing to do. Just follow these simple steps. The most important thing is to keep your mind and heart open to making a connection with the one/ones who have passed on.

The Green Cross of Hanal Pixan
The Green Cross of Hanal Pixan

Create Your Own Hanal Pixan Altar

1. Before the days of Hamal Pixan begin, thoroughly clean your home and yard. This is so cleansing and washes away old, stale energy. Also get as many chores done early as you can so you have more free time during the days of observance.

2. Dedicate a table for the altar. While the traditional Day of the dead altars are in levels (7 usually), the Hanal Pixan is much simpler with 3 levels. The 3 level represent the 3 levels of creation, Flower world which is Paradise, this world, and Xibalba which is the Underworld. You can just use a flat table. But it would be nice to put something like a box under the tablecloth to elevate the cross (in number 4)

3. Place a fresh white tablecloth on the table. If you can make it yourself, that is even better. And if you can adorn it with embroidered flowers, that is the best!

4. Place a green wooden cross in the center of your altar at the back. It should be the tallest thing on the altar. It represents the World Tree which connects the 3 levels of creation, the Overworld or Flower Mountain, this realm, and the Underworld called Xibalba. Traditionally these crosses are dressed in a flowered sash.

5. Place vases of marigolds on both sides of the cross.

6. Place salt in two containers, one at each end of the table. Jicara gourds are used here. You can also use any natural wood bowls. Of course, if you don’t have those, just use what works for you. The salt keeps negative energies away and purifies the space.

7. Make atole (a mix of corn starch and water heated until it thickens is fine) and fill 7 small bowls. Place one in each corner of the table and place the other three in the center in front of the cross.

8. Gather things that are connected to your loved one: a nice photo in a frame, favorite trinkets, anything that they would love. Display these items on the table.

9. Add candles to your table. These are mostly white but can also be black. You can light these candles each evening and replace them as they burn down.

10. Burn incense. Copal is traditional here on the Yucatan. But you can use whatever type you like. You can burn a stick of incense each day if you like and add more on NOV 1, the main day for honoring adults who have passed on (Oct 31 is the day for children and Nov 2 is for all souls, which can also be to honor people no one remembers)

11. On Nov 1, set out favorite foods of your loved one in small dishes. Allow them to sit all night. They can be enjoyed by family members the following day. In Yucatan, nothing is left to go to waste.

12. On the night of November 1, sit up at least until midnight, waiting for your loved one to visit. Expect something to happen to show you that they are with you.

13. Leave your altar up until the 7th of November. On this day, have a lovely meal with your family. You can even extend the altar time until the end of November if you wish.

I hope this inspires you to take time to honor and remember those who have passed on. Keep in mind that this can be ancestors you have never met who passed away even hundreds of years ago. You can also honor pets, people you admire but have never met, even natural places or the earth herself. This is not a time for fear, but a time to appreciate life in all its forms.

To Life,


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