From Bella Italia we head back across the Atlantic to Central America. As in other parts of the Americas, Guatemala's culture is a blend of indigenous and European heritage, with more than 20 ethnic groups represented. The Christmas tree is an imported custom from German immigrants and is generally erected and decorated around the 1st of December. But at the foot of the tree is a very special component of Guatemalan Christmas: the Nacimiento, or Nativity. Tradition has it that the first Nacimiento was brought from the Canary islands by a monk named Pedro de Betancourt, considered the St. Francis of Guatemala. You will find one in virtually every home, but they vary tremendously in design and detail:
...from simple wood carvings:
... to Mayan influence:
...to a regal touch:
Christmas decorations are a must in Guatemala. Not only are the houses decorated, but the streets of towns and villages as well. Some large corporations even finance the decorating of entire neighborhoods.
As in many other cultures, the first Sunday of December is the beginning of the Advent season, marked by a wreath with four colored candles and fifth white one, symbolizing Christ as the Light of the world, to light on Christmas Eve.
On December 7 an age-old practice known as "Quema del diablo" (burning of the devil) can be seen. Old objects are thrown out of the house, symbolizing evil, and burned at night. From December 16 to 24, processionals called posadas are carried out through the neighborhoods. The posada commemorates Mary and Joseph's search for a safe haven. The party is turned away at each house until the previously arranged ninth one (la novena), where they are welcomed with hugs, goodies, and sometimes ponche (traditional Christmas punch).
Christmas Eve in Guatemala is a joyous cacophony of family celebrations, lighting of firecrackers called cohetillos, feasting, opening of presents for the children, and a midnight mass called la misa del gallo. (My friend Mario didn't explain why this mass is called the "mass of the rooster"!) The firecrackers are lit at six-hour intervals until noon on Christmas Day.
No Guatemalan Christmas feast is complete without multiple varieties of tamales, called chuchitos, often made ahead of time. Think of Grandma making Christmas cookies with the kids, only here it is tamales. Some are savory, with beef, chicken, or pork, and some are sweet, with apples, prunes, or raisins.
By Christmas Day, I can imagine everyone is ready for a rest, and rightly so.
Desde Guatemala, ¡Feliz Navidad!
Where will Day 12 take us? Stay tuned!