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Christmas in Guatemala and How It's Influenced by Mayan Culture

Christmas in Guatemala and How It's Influenced by Mayan Culture

Guatemala is a particularly interesting place to look at during Christmas time. Not only is it after Bolivia the country with the second highest percentage of indigenous population, mainly the different Mayan ethnic groups, but also are around 70 percent of Guatemalans members of the Catholic church which arrived together with the Spanish colonizer in the 16th century. With Christmas being one of the most meaningful holidays of the Christian religion, how has the vividly practiced Mayan culture influenced the festivities around it?


As December moves closer, Christmas decorations as also known in Europe and North America start to appear in the streets, houses and markets around the country. But as you look closer there's other elements and rituals who's origin is not so clearly linked to Christmas and it's roots in the Christian church.

The fact that the birth of Jesus is celebrated December 24th to 25th turned out to be convenient for the Spanish Kingdom's mission of enforcing the Christian religion upon the indigenous Mayans. This is because it falls close to the winter solstice on December 21st which is celebrated in the Mayan cosmovision as “the birth of the new sun” with ceremonies including different offerings in veneration of the sun being the vital element and guide for agriculture. The winter solstice marks the longest night of the year before the hours of daylight start increasing again. Mayan cities like Tikal and Copán were built in alignment with the sun which is why the sun rises exactly above Temple III of Tikal on the winter solstice, indicating the beginning of important time periods of agricultural meaning.
As a result, those native celebrations started to overlap until the new brought holidays on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. This syncretism eventually created a unique amalgamation of tradition of various origins which emerge during the advent and Christmas holiday in Guatemala. However, it is to be
emphasized that this phenomena has not occurred peacefully but is the result of the cultural oppression practiced by the invaders.
Very visibly imported by the European colonizing power, is the veneration of sacred images like Baby Jesus, Mary and Joseph, the Three Wise Men and much later, in the 19th century, the Christmas tree.
Another very commonly practiced tradition rooted in the Christian holiday are the so called “posadas” during the 9 days leading up to Christmas. They consist of small groups of people going through the streets from house to house reenacting the journey of Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem asking to be
welcomed in. Typically they're received with a cup of “ponche”, a hot drink made from fresh pineapple and a number of other fruits and spices and tamales.
The creation of nativity scenes visualizing the birth of Jesus is also widely spread across Guatemala and often realized with great artistic detail and including local handicrafts. As one focuses on the details of these religious art pieces, you quickly discover elements of Mayan origin: It is very common for the little figures representing Mary and Joseph and their visitors to wear the traditional Mayan clothes and even Baby Jesus is dressed in Mayan weaving with local patterns and symbols.
Included in the nativity scenes and used as domestic decorations are several materials and elements belonging to the rich heritage of spiritual symbolism tied to the Mayan's biological environment which form part of the ancient ceremonies but are also present during Christmas time: Pine leaves and cones, oak acorn and leaves, palm leaves, moss, cypress twigs and the flowers of the tillandsia plant known as “chicken feet”.

Most influenced by the native culture are probably the culinary Christmas traditions spread and well established all across Guatemala. Two main culinary components are associated with Christmas by Guatemalans: Hot chocolate and tamales or “paches” as a festive variation of the commonly enjoyed
steamed corn rolls wrapped in different kinds of leaves e.g. corn or banana leaves.
Both tamales and hot chocolate are ceremonial foods which have been consumed by Mayans for thousands of years. During important celebrations like summer and winter solstices the spiritual guides and wise men would enjoy “rolls” made from corn dough filled with turkey or other available meats.
Tamales as the most commonly enjoyed dish during Christmas are represented in similar variations: Some are seasoned with the chipilín herb, some are filled with chicken or pork. There's also a sweet version containing chocolate, almonds, plums and chilis. But all variations of tamales are based on the
same recipe: The typical “maza de maíz” (corn dough) is wrapped in leaves and steamed in a big pot before being enjoyed with sauces, beans or plain. More traditional families vary the kinds of leaves used to wrap the tamales during Christmas time: Instead of corn or banana leaves they use “chocón” leaves
which give them a distinguished flavor and make them even tastier than they are the rest of the year.

The Christmas tradition with the most importance in Mayan history and culture however is surely cacao, enjoyed as hot chocolate or solid, seasoned with vanilla, cardamon, cinnamon or other condiments. The original Mayan name for the now worldwide enjoyed beans is K'akaw' and it was prepared into what has
been known as the sacred drink of the “Ajaw”, the creator of earth and sky. K'akaw' was prepared as a ceremonial drink during specific holidays throughout the year, like the days of certain star constellations that were occasions for ceremonies and celebrations. Those were accompanied and are to day by
offerings consisting of cacao, incense, feathers and the trading of “Chocol'ja”, the origin of the word “chocolate”.

Columbus was the first European to get in touch with cacao and after colonizers initially didn't appreciate it's taste much, they eventually brought the first beans to Spain until 1585 from where it quickly started to conquer all of Europe for it's medical and culinary use.
It's evident that Christmas celebrations in Guatemala are a unique mixture of festive elements which are the result of successful imposition of the Christian religion by the Spanish colonizers and the cultural resilience and strength of indigenous Mayans. It's a great opportunity to learn more about Guatemalan
history and culture and surely to enjoy a lot of tamales and hot chocolate.
¡Feliz Navidad!

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