What To Expect When Visiting Guatemala During Christmas
Christmas in Guatemala, and Latin America, is the most important and expected celebration of the year.
La Navidad—Christmas in Spanish—is a really important celebration in Guatemala. And it makes sense, taking into consideration that the majority of the inhabitants share Judeo-Christian religious beliefs, but also enjoy the happiness and hopefulness the season brings, religious traditions aside.
Are you planning to have a Merry Christmas in Guatemala this year? Then you came to the right place! Today you will learn all about Guatemalan Christmas decorations, traditions, and activities that have been enjoyed by families since hundreds of years ago.
All About Christmas in Guatemala
The first thing you need to know to plan your Christmas in Guatemala accordingly is that Christmas Eve is the most important day of the holidays.
La Nochebuena (Christmas Eve), on December 24, is the busiest for most Guatemalan families. On that day it is really common for families to get together, share a meal, or visit friends throughout the day.
But the most exciting part about Nochebuena is the night!
At 12 o’clock in the night, when Christmas begins, Guatemalans open the presents under their Christmas trees and the sky lights up with beautiful fireworks.
Nochebuena is one of the few days in the year kids and adults can pull an all-nighter without worrying about work the next day because Guatemalans usually have December 24 and 25 off.
A lot of families like to keep visiting their loved ones on the 25th. Others travel to their hometown to spend a little bit of the holidays there, and others stay at home and use this day to relax, eat leftovers and enjoy their gifts.
But there is so much more about Christmas in Guatemala, and now that we have the general overview of this holiday, let’s look at all the other elements that make it so special.
Traditional Christmas food in Guatemala is something you can’t miss.
Not only because everyone you meet will offer you food, but also because of how intricately interwoven food and holiday traditions are. All around the world, food offering means affection, and in Guatemala, that’s not different.
Miguel Alfredo Álvarez— director of the Museo de Historia Natural (Natural History Museum) in 2016— described the holidays in Guatemala as spiritual, colorful, and full of different flavors.
And two foods that represent that statement are: Los tamales and el ponche.
1. Tamale (Tamales)
There are different types of Guatemalan tamales, but during the holidays, there are two that are more widely prepared and eaten:
- Red tamal- el tamal rojo
- Black tamal- el tamal negro
Both of them are savory, prepared with corn or rice dough, called masa, which is mushy and soft, instead of firm like Mexican tamales. Inside the masa you can usually find a piece of meat, some vegetables like olives and chilli pepper, and a thick tomato sauce called recado, made with different species and chillies.
Both tamales can include sweet elements, like prunes, raisins, and almonds, and is this version the one that is mostly eaten during the holidays.
It is common to eat tamales with bread or tortillas, and some lemon drops to give them a more tangy taste.
Check out this recipe to make your own tamales colorados for this holiday season!
2. Fruit Punch (El ponche de frutas)
Unlike normal fruit punch, Guatemalan fruit punch is a hot beverage mostly drunk during the holidays.
El ponche de frutas, most commonly called el ponche, is a hot beverage prepared with an assortment of tropical foods like pineapple, apple, orange, apricot, and papaya. Spices and herbs—like cinnamon, allspice, and cloves—are also used to give it flavor.
Instead of straining the fruit, or blending it, it is put inside the beverage to eat it at the same time you drink el ponche, or while you wait for it to cool down a little.
Now, tamales and ponche aren’t the only foods enjoyed by Guatemalans during the holidays. Foods like lomo relleno (stuffed loin), pierna de cerdo (pork leg), jamón (ham), and pavo (turkey) are really popular during this season. Delicious hot beverages like peppermint-flavored coffee, or hot cocoa are commonly sold in coffee shops.
Christmas decorations in Guatemala are unique!
Besides the Christmas trees and lights, Guatemalans have really particular ways to decorate their homes, so let’s learn about them.
1. Nativity Scenes (Los nacimientos)
Los nacimientos (nativity scenes) are one of the most traditional decorations for Christmas in Guatemala. They are usually put up by Catholic families in the country.
They were brought by el Hermano Pedro de San José de Betancur (Peter of Saint Joseph of Betancur) during the 17th century, and Guatemalans of that time embraced the tradition. They gave it their own personal and Guatemalan touch, like the use of more colors and the recreation of common landscapes in the country.
You can find nacimientos in churches, malls, and even parks! But the most special ones are those you find inside Guatemalans homes. There is a space reserved for them in some corner of the house. The effort families put to bring their nativity scenes to life is commendable.
Some of the images used in the scenes are actual family heirlooms, brought from Spain or Europe during the colony. Others were made in Antigua Guatemala, and others in a neighborhood in the city called Chinautla, which is really popular because of its good quality figurines and structures.
To give life to the nacimientos, they are decorated with dyed sawdust called aserrín, which can be found in a lot of different colors, pine tree needles, pacaya leaves, and a small fruit called manzanilla, which is sewed in strings to hang not only in the nativity scene but also around the house. Its smell is delicious and part of thousands of Guatemalans’ memories.
Some people also use different kinds of moss, soil, and even sand to make the scene more natural, and others give their personal touches to it by adding landmarks—like lakes and rivers made with mirrors— and less traditional figures.
2. Other Decorations
Besides the Nativity scenes, there are other Guatemalan decorations that have been part of the holidays since hundreds of years ago.
It is common for some families to use pine needles to decorate the floor when hosting a posada or a Christmas party. It makes the place look more colorful and the smell is amazing! But be careful, it is also really slippery!
As we mentioned before, the manzanilla strings hang all around the house. Because of the yellowish-orange of this little endemic fruit, it makes the house more colorful, and its sweet smell gives a delicious aroma to the house.
Spruce crowns are also really common, as well as natural spruce trees instead of the common plastic ones.
It is also really common to decorate the garden and garages with stick-made figurines, like reindeers, angels, and even nativity scenes! Combine those rough decorations with some Christmas lights and it looks magical and aesthetic!
Decorating and cooking are two of the most common traditions for Christmas in Guatemala.
Some families even take time off work to prepare tamales, or decorate the house and put up the nacimientos and the Christmas decorations. Some families begin to decorate on November 2, just after All Saints’ Day, while others wait until December for the Christmas spirit.
But there are some other interesting traditions that you may like to know about how to celebrate Christmas in Guatemala.
1. Las Posadas
There isn’t a direct translation of the word posadas, but this Guatemalan tradition portrays the night where Joseph and Mary were looking for a place to stay in Bethlehem before Jesus was born.
According to historians, this tradition was born in Guatemala and then was adopted by other countries in the region, like Mexico. The posadas are celebrated from December 15 to December 23.
Las posadas consist of a small procession float that depicts Mary and Joseph trying to find a place to stay the night. This small scene is carried on the shoulders of a group of people who transport it around a neighborhood until finding a place for the figurines to spend the night, which is called dar posada (give rest) in Spanish.
Once the place that will give posada is reached, all the people that accompany the procession are invited in to sing some Christmas carols, pray, and eat. The most common foods given in posadas are tamales and ponche.
Who will host the posada, who carries it, and who accompanies it is decided weeks before the holiday season by Catholic brotherhoods or neighborhood associations. This tradition is more commonly practiced by Catholics than any other religious group in the country.
The posadas are commonly accompanied by music too. There is a traditional song that is sung by those who are carrying the procession, and those that “deny” the scene to stay in their home.
To mark the rhythm, there are two traditional instruments played in las posadas, an empty turtle shell and wooden rattles. Some of those instruments are actually heirlooms and have been in the possession of families for many years.
2. Fireworks (Los cuetes)
Christmas fireworks in Guatemala are a key part of the holidays.
They are easy to purchase and it is common to hear the explosion of los cuetes (fireworks) almost every night during November and December because kids and teenagers like to burn them at dawn.
But there are two major traditions that involve fireworks in Guatemala during the holidays.
The first one is La quema del Diablo (The devil’s burn), a tradition that has been around since the 17th century, when the Catholic townspeople in Antigua Guatemala found themselves needing a light source so they could walk with a procession around the city, so they made bonfires with wood and grass to have light.
With time, people change the bonfires for piñatas that resemble the devil, and fireworks. However, lately, this tradition has become less popular because of its impact on the environment, so people are finding new ways to celebrate without contamination.
The other tradition is Las Luces Campero (The Campero Lights). For more than 30 years, Pollo Campero, one of the largest Guatemalan chain restaurants, lit up the skies of Guatemala city with a firework show that adults and kids alike enjoy. Not everyone has the money to purchase that kind of fireworks, so the event lets us enjoy it for free.
One of my first memories is going to a street near El Campo Marte—the park where the event takes place— with my parents and my grandparents, and sitting at the side of the road to watch the fireworks. We were so close I thought the little sparkles were going to rain over me!
This year, this tradition changed. After 30 years, Pollo Campero decided that instead of using the money for the fireworks, they were going to use it to feed thousands of Guatemalans in need.
This tradition will be missed but it is cool to see it evolve to something more inspiring, especially in these difficult times.
There are so many more Christmas traditions in Guatemala because of how diverse our country is!
For example, it is really normal to hear Christmas music in Guatemala played in marimba, our national instrument.
Feliz Navidad, Prospero Año And a Lot of Spanish!
If you plan to travel to enjoy Christmas in Guatemala, you will always be welcome here!
As Guatemalans, we like to share our traditions with our visitors, and let them enjoy the festivities during the holidays. But although you can speak English with a lot of Guatemalans, being able to speak and understand Spanish will make life so much easier and more fun during your visit! You’ll be able to talk with the locals more naturally and have a more fulfilling and authentic experience without the language barrier.
When planning your next trip, it is important to make fast decisions and be attentive to your surroundings and options. Learning Spanish helps your cognition and decision-making abilities, so that way you can decide where to go, what to eat, and what to try on your adventure!
So what are you waiting for? Sign up today for a free 1-to-1 class with a certified native Spanish-speaking teacher at Homeschool Spanish Academy. Check out our programs and take a peek at our affordable prices and begin this new adventure with us!
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