The Burning of the Devil

Across the country on December 7th, Guatemalans burn the devil. Market stalls fill with paper mache devils for families who want to personally show the devil his due, and at the only place in La Antigua where two gas stations sit across the street from each other, people gather to watch La Quema del Diablo – The Burning of the Devil.

As I walked through swarms of people wearing devil horns and past kiosks selling sizzling meat and devil apparel, I passed a fire truck parked protectively in front of one of the gas stations. On a platform in the center of the crowd stood the bowing devil weighed down, not by a cross, but by red wooden wings. A cigarette shot from his mouth and his horns pointed menacingly towards the audience. Two men on a ladder were packing his wooden frame with firecrackers and dousing him with can after can of gasoline. The devil’s petroleum perfume rose robustly across the anxious crowd. A man, with alcohol pouring from his mannerisms and a cigarette in his mouth, stumbled over the protective barrier. He walked right up to the devil and looked the fiend straight in the eyes. There was something intimate about the exchange. As man and demon locked sights, the two men on the ladder just laughed and told him to go away. He remained until one of the news reporters put his microphone in his pocket and helped lead him back to the growing masses.

I asked one of the volunteer firemen why anyone thought it was a good idea to burn a devil effigy in between two gas stations. He twirled his helmet with his fingers and shrugged, “They’ve been burning the devil here since even before the gas stations were here. It’s tradition.” The reason this particular spot was chosen to burn the devil is that it’s in front of the ruins of La Concepción (the church and convent of the Immaculate Conception of Mary). When you burn the devil, you make way for Mary. The tradition of burning the devil began in colonial times. In anticipation of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, a day which honors the Virgin Mary, those who could afford it adorned the fronts of their houses with lanterns. The poor, who could not afford such lanterns, would clean out their homes, gathering all their garbage, and would burn the year’s rubbish in front of their houses – the idea being to burn all of the bad from the previous year and to start anew from the ashes. Over time it was formalized and in addition to individual piles of garbage, communities started to burn effigies of the devil to clear the way for Mary’s feast.

In cities throughout the country, the devil is burned at the stroke of six o’clock in the evening. In La Antigua, head early to the east end of 4a Calle Oriente to secure a spot to view the spectacle. In Ciudad Vieja, one of the former capitals of Guatemala, a devil three stories tall is constructed and burned in the city square!

As the hour approached, a bearded man with a bullhorn in one hand and a torch in the other began reading the charges being leveled against the devil. The crowd started roaring. Children’s faces danced between fear and excitement. Everyone was on their toes, leaning over the crowd to get a slightly better glimpse. Then the devil’s hour came and as the torch touched him, he burst into flames. Children screamed. The firecrackers packed inside the devil began to blow. The darkened street was alive with a brilliant red light. A cloud of smoke diabolically covered everyone downwind. Every injustice of the previous year was now being corrected and the Feast of the Immaculate Conception could begin the next day without the devil’s interference.

As the flames continued to burn, the devil was reduced to ashes. One reporter standing too close was nearly hit as the Devil’s flaming body parts began to fall. The flames waned. Soon only cinders remained. When the fear of a fire disappeared with the final flames of the devil, the fire truck was quickly appropriated as a dance floor for the band that played in the wake of the burning. With their demons faced down, the crowd danced vibrantly into the night, perhaps to later lay safely in their beds and dream of a harmonious Guatemala with no devils to burn.

Photos by Luke Armstrong

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