Step into the heart of Yucatán’s most highly anticipated celebration: Janal Pixan, a quintessential festivity for Yucatecan families. Although it’s important to remember that Janal Pixan is a real part of Maya and Yucatecan life and not just a tourist attraction, it’s entirely possible for you and your family to get involved and learn about the local traditions practiced to honor the deceased.
The designated dates for Janal Pixan are from October 31 to November 2, but the festive atmosphere starts to emerge about a week before (more or less). With keen observation, it’s the youngest members of the family who show the first signs of excitement, especially when you involve them in the preparations (and the subsequent activities).
1. Start with the market
A great place to begin understanding Janal Pixan with your family is the Lucas de Gálvez Market. Here, you can find several Meridanos getting ready to celebrate. As you walk through the aisles, you’ll find stalls brimming with the ingredients needed for the dishes the celebration requires. If you’re planning to take your kids to the Paseo de las Ánimas (a traditional parade), take a look at the shops near the market; you might want to buy traditional outfits for them to wear. They’ll look fabulous with their faces painted like skulls. For boys, buy some white shorts and a white Guayabera shirt. For girls, a traditional Hipil dress will look lovely.
Right in front of the market, you’ll also find beautiful Papel Picado (the colorful perforated paper banners you absolutely associate with México), and you’ll be amazed by the magnificent stalls displaying sugar skulls and graves that are not only super photogenic but also guarantee that your kids will be asking for candy for the rest of their stay in Mérida, and have a lifelong memory of their stay in México.
2. Full belly, happy heart
Pibes or Mukbilpollos cannot be missing from the table or the altar. But what are they, you might wonder? Allow me to clarify so you can introduce this cultural gem to the little ones. Pib is a delicacy we often describe as a “giant tamal traditionally baked underground.” Engaging in its preparation or simply sitting down to share it is an activity even the youngest ones can join.
There are plenty of recipes online in case you don’t have a family one, but if cooking isn’t in your plans (or possibilities), you can order it in advance or visit the Pib Fair at San Sebastián Park.
It’s not Yucatecan, but…
Are you familiar with Pan de Muerto? It is a traditional sweet bread that is eaten throughout México during this season. Typically adorned with sugar and featuring a subtle hint of orange flavor, each Pan de Muerto is uniquely delightful, making it a fun tasting adventure to share with the kids. Pan de Muerto is so popular in our state that you can find it as early as August, and even, in some establishments, all year round. Some options where your child can choose their own Pan de Muerto are: Pan Montejo (former Panificadora Montejo), Panadería y Pastelería Kike’s (pronounced keekays) and Montecristo Panadería.
The Paseo de las Ánimas or the Stroll of the Souls, is a lively procession that stretches from the General Cemetery to the Arch of San Juan. It’s filled with altars, music, incense, Catrinas, troubadours, and an overall festive atmosphere. It’s a beautiful and highly appealing activity for children, but keep in mind that it’s a cherished activity among the locals and tends to draw large crowds. If your kids are older, you can enter the cemetery to see the procession begin with hundreds of people dressed in traditional clothing, holding candles, and with painted faces. If your kids are younger, I recommend waiting outside the main entrance where there are some seats and snack options. Once the Stroll of the Souls has passed, follow it for as long as you like through the streets of Mérida, and marvel at how the city transforms during this time of year. Altars are set up outside houses, there’s food and toys for sale, and even live music. The atmosphere is incredible.
The altar is one of the fundamental elements of Janal Pixan. It’s customary to set up altars in homes, and it’s no surprise that in schools, each grade or classroom organizes its own. There are two types of altars, one for the souls of children (celebrated on October 31) and another for adults (on November 1). The former are more colorful, featuring toys, colorful candles, sweets, photographs, and yellow Xpujuc and red Xtés flowers. The latter, more solemn, with white candles and a white tablecloth, three-course meals, and items that the deceased enjoyed.
If you’re not Yucatecan…
No buts, it’s not a problem. You’d be hard-pressed to find a Yucateco (or a Mexican in México) who would be offended by a foreigner wanting to participate in these celebrations. Be respectful, keep an open mind, and forget what you think you know about the celebration. Setting up the altar as a family is an opportunity to teach children about their ancestors and what they liked, regardless of where you (or they) are from.
Photography by Juan Manuel Mier y Terán, Cassie Pearse, Bruce Edmiston, Iván Gabaldón, Alejandro Molina Poot, and H. Ayuntamiento de Mérida for its use in Yucatán Today.
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