Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Christmas in Guatemala

This year was my first Christmas away from home and family. It was definitely different, but fun to be in a place that celebrates Christmas with its own mix of traditions. Although my religious perspective is very open, being away from home this year I realized how important the holiday is to me.

The venerable 4th street, Zone 3 Christmas tree, made of green crepe paper over a metal frame, complete with lights and music box which plays MIDI Christmas carols only two octaves below the audible limits of human hearing. It's enough to make me want to break out in a rousing edition of "O, Tannenbaum"

Something interesting about Christmas here is the mixture of traditional and new. Due to the influence of returned immigrants – and to some extent blatant commercialization in a nearby city some secular Christmas ideas from the US are making their way more into celebrations in my town (though always with a Guatemalan spin). Hello public Christmas trees, lights, and Santa.

According to Wal-mart in the closest city the Christmas season started a few days before Halloween, which was kind of strange. Here in my town it started at the beginning of December (as it properly should, haha), with a care package from my mom. That same night my street´s "Christmas tree committee" had its annual Christmas tree lighting and marching band contest. After that, Christmas decorations and the dreaded music boxes of MIDI-Christmas-carol doom started going up all over the place.

Annual Christmas tree lighting: one night I found the Macy's Day Parade outside my front door.
It was a noisy and cheerful month, if a little frustrating work-wise, since almost all my counterparts were on vacation physically and mentally. Even so it was a very happy time: I had my boyfriend´s visit to look forward to; we enjoyed dry, sunny weather; and I came home every night to find my street filled with ¨Christmas cheer¨: lights, excited children, and neighborhood stands brimming with fireworks and Christmas treats. We’re at around 8000 ft here, so it was almost freezing cold at night, which made it feel very Christmas-like as well, even without snow.

In mid-December the posadas started taking to the streets every night, commemorating Mary and Joseph´s search for shelter with candle-light processions and cheerful and off-key carol-singing.

Mom's care-package: Being away from home, I embraced the kitsch this year with enthusiasm I probably haven't had since I was about 12. Thanks, Mom!

I eventually even adapted to the incessant noise of fire-crackers and the music box on the street outside my house playing ¨Jingle Bells¨ on repeat for three hours every night. (Though I still can´t relate to the Guatemalan super-power of noise tolerance.)

The afternoon before Christmas break the municipality gave each employee a Christmas basket filled with basic staples and lots of typical Christmas treats like marshmallows, canned peaches, imported grapes, and Washington apples. From what I´ve heard this is pretty standard practice throughout Guatemala.

(Getting apples in the Christmas basket made me think of Little House on the Prairie— as an 8-year-old reading how Laura Ingalls got all excited about an orange in her stocking, I could only contemplate with horror the idea that a piece of fruit could possibly be a Christmas present. Now I get it a little bit more.)

While it's a fun time of year to eat marshmellows and burn firecrackers, there's also nativity scenes and lots of talk in the air about "el niƱo Jesus." Religious Catholics in my town go to church on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, while Evangelicals seem to play down the situation unless Christmas falls on their normal day of worship. In rural areas especially, but throughout the country, people prepare traditional paches or special sweet tamales, which they often eat at midnight, and many drink a spiked fruit drink called ponche.

Midnight on Christmas Eve is typically the main show. Those with money to blow go nuts with the fire-crackers and fireworks, lit off at precisely midnight (with a reprise at noon on Christmas Day). In my town at least, families typically don´t have the custom of giving presents - fireworks are cooler I guess -, but everyone exchanges the traditional ¨Christmas hug¨ between family and close friends. It's a nice idea, and I wonder how and when it got started.

Christmas tamale!

That's about all I've got on the general celebration here in Guate. I didn’t spend actual Christmas day in town, but with my boyfriend´s family in a nearby city – so I´ll share more on that later!

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