For many of us living in the United States, a Guatemalan Christmas may appear to be very similar to our traditional Thanksgiving Day Parade. The people of Guatemala love to celebrate Christmas with several parades that feature dozens of colorful and exquisite decor and religious statues to commemorate the birth of Jesus Christ!
Guatemalan Christmas celebrations begin on December 7th with the procession of the Immaculate Conception. This tradition consists of a large statue of the Virgin Mary on a beautifully decorated wooden float that is usually carried by several people, or in some cases, pulled by a car. This celebratory float is taken around from town to town for everyone to see and admire. Often, people will follow the procession and sing hymns. The procession ends when the statue is brought back to the church. There, a mass is held in the Virgin Mary’s honor.
A few days later, on December 12th, the Virgin of Guadalupe is celebrated. Many Guatemalan children will wear traditional Indigenous clothing and join a large procession while waving around bright and fiery sparklers (known as estrellitas, or “little stars”) in honor of the Lady of Guadalupe. One unique tradition in Guatemala is that many parents will also present their newborn children to the Virgin of Guadalupe to receive her blessing and support.
Like many other Latin countries, Guatemala celebrates Las Posadas from December 16th to the 24th. Each of the nine nights symbolizes the nine months that Mary was pregnant with Jesus Christ. Each evening, the Guatemalan people will carry a wooden float that features statues of both Mary and Joseph to different homes throughout the town. This journey symbolizes Mary and Joseph’s journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Like what Mary and Joseph experienced, the first home visited by the procession will deny the float entrance, symbolizing those who turned away Mary and Joseph. And at the last house they visit, the statues will be carried into a room where a Nativity scene is set, symbolizing the night Jesus was born. The figures of Mary and Joseph will remain there until Christmas morning when a statue of baby Jesus will be placed in the manger.
Later that evening, on Christmas Eve, midnight mass is held. This service is preceded by a procession (yes, another one) with a float that features wooden statues of the Holy Family. After the midnight mass, all the local church members visit the surrounding homes to greet their neighbors and celebrate the birth of Jesus. To many of us in the United States, a 1:00 AM wake-up call might not sound ideal, but it is all a part of a beautiful Christmas tradition in Guatemala! And, if a well-meaning neighbor does not wake them, they will surely be woken up by the fireworks and firecrackers set off at midnight to bring in Christmas with an official bang!
Another unique Christmas tradition in Guatemala is the planning and building of the nativity scene, which is also called a “Nacimiento” or “Belen” that the entire family helps create! Although it is originally a Spanish tradition, many indigenous (Guatemalan) elements have been incorporated into the design and construction of the nativity. The “Nacimiento” is generally placed underneath the Christmas tree and is often the central piece of decor in the home.
Like other countries around the world, Guatemalans love to decorate their homes for the holidays. However, unlike in the United States, where you will often see inflatable snowmen or Santa Claus, most Guatemalans stick with simple lights, loads of tinsel, and life-size lambs made from Spanish moss and pine needles. Some homes may even feature fake trees decorated with lights and small ornaments. It is also common for many Guatemalans to open their homes to the public so others may see their nativity scenes and other decorations!
But a true Guatemalan Christmas would be nothing without the delicious food and drinks that so many families enjoy during both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day!
A traditional Guatemalan Christmas meal consists of many traditional recipes, but the main dish is Guatemalan tamales wrapped in banana leaves. In some regions, they are made of corn and rice or potatoes. They can be sweet or savory and have several different ingredients like olives, prunes, peppers, chicken, or pork.
The Ponche de Frutas is the beverage of choice for those who prefer a nice warm drink! It is made by boiling slices of apple, pear, pineapple, and papaya with a small amount of sugar, raisins, and cinnamon. Yum!
Around the world, many children will begrudgingly wait to open their gifts until Christmas Day. However, in Guatemala, many children will open their presents on Christmas Eve either before or after mass. With all the events before December 25th, many families use Christmas Day as a day of rest and sleep! And although Santa Claus is not a prominent figure in Guatemala, you may find him enjoying a bit of sun in Guatemala City! Even the big guy needs a day off now and then!
Fun fact: The official language in Guatemala is Spanish! If you want to say, “Merry Christmas” like a true Guatemalan, say “Feliz Navidad!”