This year, I marked my first true Guatemalan Christmas. I’ve been in the country leading up to Christmas, but never spent the big day here. There is no Thanksgiving in Guatemala. So, the natural US divide between ‘Christmas time’ and the rest of the year is gone. I’ve always grown up with a more traditional Southern Christmas. Maybe a little black Friday shopping after Thanksgiving. But Christmas doesn’t get into full swing until a week or two before. We would decorate the house and then Christmas Eve and Christmas Day the family would get together for dinner. Sometimes we hit the movie theaters Christmas Day. Not in Guatemala.
The Christmas Spirit Begins
The Guatemalan Christmas spirit starts early in mid-November when decorations start popping up overnight, almost magically. Avenida Reforma, one of the main roads through the capital has tinsel, lights and other decorations arching over the road. Poinsettias start creeping in to restaurants and homes one by one. Christmas truly arrives when you see the Gallo Christmas tree put together in Obelisco. The cherry on top of a Guatemalan Christmas is when the market starts being overwhelmed with Christmas lights that belt out Christmas tunes when you walk by.
Visiting the Gallo tree is a must during the Christmas season. Every night the tree has a light show to go along with Christmas songs played. The first few days that the tree is together, traffic is jammed around the area with all of the people coming to see the tree. Vendors set up along the streets and the Obelsico area turns into the epicenter of all things Guatemalan Christmas.
Beginning in December and running throughout the entire month are ‘convivios’ – basically Christmas parties. There are work convivios, family convivios, convivios for friends. We even do a convivio for the kids I work with through the non-profit. Convivios hit a frantic pace in the two weeks before Christmas. Restaurants are shut down and huge masses of people get together to celebrate the holiday.
A Popping Christmas
Christmas in Guatemala is personified by fireworks…. the only true way to celebrate the season. Early in the month, firework sales pop up everywhere ranging from firecrackers to the real deal. As night comes, the – now – familiar sounds of the fireworks begin popping off. The Saturday before Christmas, the entire city gathers for a massive fireworks show from Pollo Campero. Almost anywhere in the city offers a view of the fireworks.
The arrival of Christmas day is marked by fireworks as well. Families gather together on Christmas Eve to celebrate and eat tamales. When midnight on the 24th hits, fireworks fill the sky for a solid 30 minutes. On Christmas Day, fireworks mark the celebrations every six hours, starting at 6am and going all day.
I got married this year to a Guatemalan and we decided to celebrate with his family this year. We partook in the traditional viewing of the Gallo Christmas tree. The tree is actually on the way to the non-profit I’ve been working with, so I see it every day. We also viewed the Pollo Campero fireworks from the balcony of our apartment building. Christmas Eve we went out to his mother’s house where we helped make tamales. A labor of love, making tamales is a process. I’m still not too sure about the secret of making the dough or what exactly is in the sauce (other than peppers, chocolate and a LOT of butter). But, I am a master at blending the sauce ingredients and putting together tamales!
The midnight fireworks were fun to watch. The neighbors shot of things ranging from firecrackers to hand rocket and ‘bombs’ (which do nothing but make a horribly loud noise). Further into town were the big fireworks. But, from the hill where we were, we had a great view. However, the midnight fireworks completely terrified the dog, who was having none of the celebrations. The festivities ended with hugs between the family and neighborhoods. At 6am fireworks start again. Like a US Christmas, the next several days are filled with eating leftovers…. in this case more tamales!
How did you celebrate Christmas this year? Have you ever celebrated Christmas in another country?