Guatemala, Christmas in

Guatemala, Christmas in

Guatemalan Christmas celebrations combine Spanish and German customs. Native American influences may also be seen in Guatemalan Christmas foods and decorations.

Fires and Housecleaning

In Guatemala the Devil runs wild during the first week or so of Advent. In highland villages and towns local men in devil costumes appear on the streets and pursue children, who flee from the strange figures. The Devil's reign ends on December 7 with a folk ritual known as La Quema del Diablo, or "The Burning of the Devil." People rummage through their homes for things that they no longer want or deem useless. They pile these objects together in front of their houses, scatter some firecrackers on top of the heap, and set fire to it. This act not only chases away the Devil, but also symbolizes the housecleaning of the heart done in preparation for the coming of the infant Jesus. Other Christmas season preparations also touch on the theme of housecleaning. For example, many repair and paint their homes at this time of year.

Decorations

Due to the influence of Guatemala's large German community, many people have adopted the Christmas tree as one of their seasonal decorations. Since it is illegal to cut down trees in Guatemala, however, many people create Christmas trees out of tree branches. As Christmas nears, vendors line the streets and plazas offering these trees and many other colorful Christmas trinkets for sale.

Posadas

On December 16 Las Posadas begins. In this nine-day ritual, people reenact Mary and Joseph's search for shelter in Bethlehem. Las Posadas concludes on Christmas Eve with a large party for all who have participated in the event.

Christmas Eve and Day

Many Guatemalans choose to spend December 24 at home with their families. Others participate in public festivities. In the city of Antigua the clanging of church bells at midday kicks off the Christmas Eve celebrations. As the afternoon wears on, the air begins to ring with the sound of firecrackers and other explosives. Men wearing the traditional costumes and oversized pasteboard heads of the gigantes and cabezudos ("giants" and "big-heads") march through the main streets accompanied by folk musicians. In the evening performers dressed as bulls with fireworks strapped to their backs entertain the crowds. When the fuses are lit these men, called toritos ("little bulls"), charge through the streets like their namesakes. A formal fireworks display follows. At night a procession wends its way towards the cathedral for the celebration of Midnight Mass.

Traditionally, Guatemalans waited until after Midnight Mass to enjoy their Christmas dinner, although nowadays some people dine earlier. Children open their presents on Christmas Eve after dinner. Parents and other adults generally wait until New Year's Day to exchange gifts. A traditional Christmas dinner includes tamales, bundles of corn dough wrapped around a filling of meat and sauce, and ponche, or "punch," a sweet made from plums, raisins, dates, brown sugar, and liquor. According to folk beliefs, Jesus was born at the stroke of twelve on Christmas Eve (see also Misa de Gallo). Therefore, fireworks explode at midnight, commemorating the moment of the holy birth. On Christmas Day fireworks and celebrations begin again at noon.

Further Reading

Clynes, Tom. Wild Planet! Detroit, Mich.: Visible Ink Press, 1995. Del Re, Gerard, and Patricia Del Re. The Christmas Almanack. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1979. MacDonald, Margaret Read, ed. The Folklore of World Holidays. Detroit, Mich.: Gale Research, 1992. Wakefield, Charito Calvachi. Navidad Latinoamericana, Latin American Christ-mas. Lancaster, Pa.: Latin American Creations Publishing, 1997.
Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2003