December in Guatemala

Christmas, an eminently Christian celebration, is observed nowadays in many countries around the world. But regardless of where you come from, where you are, or what beliefs you have, it’s a time of celebration when, besides the birth of Jesus, we celebrate family and loved ones.

It’s a magical time, full of lights, colors, aromas, and expectations that take us back to childhood, that period of our lives when the impossible is possible, and it reminds us that there are mysteries in the world worth remembering. So join the collective Guatemalan frame of mind that is sure to be a pleasant surprise; let yourself be seduced by the fragrances, flavors, and folklore of this land. Below is a sample of what to expect.

The Posadas
These are representations that tell the story of the journey of Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem, and their search for a place to spend the night. The posadas begin on December 15 and continue through the 23rd of the month. They consist of a small platform which is carried on the shoulders through the streets and is accompanied by a group of people with lanterns, who sing or pray to the rhythm of turtle-shell percussion or a drum and flute, and which can also be accompanied by marimba. The group makes the trip from one house to another to another during the nine nights of the celebrations. At the end of each night, there are refreshments for the participants.

Nativity Scenes
These are scenes depicting the birth of Jesus Christ, which are exhibited in homes, in churches or in public places. They usually show the Baby Jesus in a manger with Joseph and Mary at his side, often accompanied by an ox and a mule. Guatemalan nacimientos (nativity scenes) differ from those of the rest of the world with the inclusion of native folk art, where clay figurines represent shepherds, sheep, farm animals, houses, and even entire villages. Often sawdust dyed different colors is used, as is green and white moss, colored pebbles, miniature trees, pine needles, and manzanilla, among other items. All these ingredients combine to create the most varied scenes, where Guatemalan landscapes, Mayan folk art, and the influences of Hispanic and Catholic traditions mix.

Coupled with this tradition, there is another called “The Theft of the Baby Jesus,” but don’t be alarmed, it’s just one more way to celebrate the season. The game consists of waiting for the homeowner (and owner of the nacimiento) to be careless and off-guard and then a member of the family or a family friend removes the figurine of the Baby Jesus and “steals” it. When the owner of the figurine becomes aware of the theft, he must wait for the “thief” to return the Baby Jesus by offering a feast to celebrate its “reappearance.”

The Burning of the Devil 
This tradition, which begins on December 7th at 6 PM, starts off the Christmas-season celebrations. People collect unused objects and junk from their homes, preferably those that burn easily, as well as piñatas that represent the popular image of the devil. These are placed in front of the home and set alight. In addition to this, within the home, care is taken to thoroughly sweep every nook and cranny, and then holy water is sprinkled throughout. This ritual, with the idea of burning out all evil, symbolizes the cleansing needed in order to start a new year better than the last one.

Day of the Innocents / All Fools’ Day
This day, December 28th, commemorates the slaughter of thousands of innocent children by King Herod’s soldiers in an attempt to kill the Baby Jesus. But instead of being a sad remembrance of this tragic event, it’s a day where pranks are played on those “innocents” who aren’t paying attention. The pranks can sometimes be cruel, but they’re always funny. If you overhear something like: “¡Inocente palomita que te dejaste engañar!” (“Innocent dove, you let yourself be fooled!”) or “¡Caíste por inocente!” (“You fell for it, ’cause you’re naive!”), don’t be angry!  The whole purpose is for everyone to share a smile.

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