Christmas in Guatemala

by Robert J. Starszak

Located in Central America, bordering the Caribbean Sea, Guatemala is situated between Honduras and Belize and bordering the North Pacific Ocean, between El Salvador and Mexico.

An early indicator of the coming Christmas season in Guatemala is the large holiday parade which Paiz, a local department-store chain, holds in the capital, Guatemala City, in mid-November. The parade features marching bands and colorful floats depicting Christmas motifs and popular cartoon characters which delight the tens of thousands of spectators standing along its route.

For nine evenings prior to Christmas, the beat of drums and the explosion of fireworks are heard as posada (“inn”) processions move through the streets of Guatemala, with participants carrying farolitos (small tin lanterns) to light the way. On each of these posadas, which are re-enactments of Joseph’s and Mary’s search for shelter in Bethlehem before Jesus’ birth, figures of the couple are carried to a designated house as special carols are sung and ritual questions and answers are recited. The figures are then placed on the nacimiento or Nativity scene of the house, where they will remain until the following night when the search for shelter resumes, and a great party takes place with food, drink, music, and dancing.

On Christmas Eve when the clock turns to midnight, a figure of the Christ Child is added to the nacimiento with great ceremony. Then it's time for the abrazo de Navidad (Christmas hug) to be exchanged between relatives, friends, and neighbors as a sign of unity and love. All the while, there are huge explosions of fireworks. That's not the end of the noise for Christmas. At noon on Christmas Day the sound of firecrackers can be heard throughout the cities and across the countryside.

As in other countries, Guatemalans adorn their homes during Christmas with lights and assorted decorations. Setting up the nacimiento, the custom of which was introduced to the country by the Franciscans during the 17th century, is truly a family affair. Structures and human and animal figures used in the nacimiento are usually made of clay, wood, or plaster, while fields and roads are made of colored sawdust.

Christmas trees first became popular in Guatemala following German immigration to the Alta Verapaz region of the country during the late 19th and early 20th centuries and the arrival of Americans working for the local banana industry during the early 20th century. Children will find gifts left by the Christ Child under the tree on Christmas morning (similar to the German Christkindl tradition).

Tamales made with pork or chicken are the most popular Christmas dish in Guatemala (one Guatemalan website on the Internet claims, in fact, that “a Christmas without tamales is not Christmas”). Guatemalans also enjoy different punch drinks with ingredients such as dried fruit, raisins, prunes, dates, cinnamon, milk, and/or rum.

In 2006, a visitor to this site who lived in Guatamala for more than four decades e-mailed the following information:

The tradition of giving out presents on the 6th of Jan (3 wise men) is a European celebration that Guatemala, being a Spanish colony, observed for a long time. Due to other influences that tradition has been lost a lot. You will see the 6th of January celebrations in small towns that stay with the old traditions.

Song: Caribbean Bugler's Holiday

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