A tradition brought over to Guatemala by the Spanish Hermano Pedro is the nacimiento or nativity scene. El Día de la Virgen de La Concepción, on the 8th of December, is officially the beginning of the Christmas season and nacimientos start appearing in churches, homes, offices, restaurants, hotels and even in the streets.
Guatemalans take great pride in their nacimientos and many of them are brilliant works of art using vividly tinted sawdust (aserrín), pine needles, chamomile fruits (manzanillas) and incense to create color and aroma.
The following photos of nacimientos were all taken in the town of Antigua.
La Merced church
It is customary for the manger to remain empty until the figure of baby Jesus appears at midnight on the 24th accompanied by prayers and carols.
Nativity scenes are a worldwide custom but here it is not uncommon to see a touch of local flavor in the form of traditionally dressed Mayan figures and typical Guatemalan volcanic landscapes.
At midnight on the 24th of December Guatemalans typically munch on tamales washed down with steaming homemade fruit punch or ponche.
The tamal colorado is one of the most common tamales in Guatemala and although usually sold only on Saturdays it is also the traditional dish for Christmas Eve.
Made from a cooked maize dough or masa with a tomato-based sauce and a piece of pork, chicken or turkey inside, it is served wrapped up in banana leaves.
Throughout the year they are eaten with pan francés (French bread rolls) and a cup of coffee or hot chocolate. However on this day it is more common to accompany them with festive ponche.
The first few times I tried tamales colorados they didn´t grab my attention. It wasn’t until I sampled a number of them that I found some I liked, so it is worth trying a few from different places as the quality can vary greatly.
A variation of the tamal is the pache which is made with a potato dough instead of maize. This year on Christmas Eve I ate tamales colorados in two homes and a pache in a third.
Ponche is a traditional hot fruit punch drunk at home and sold at food stalls and in restaurants all through the Christmas season and at New Year in Guatemala.
Fresh and dried fruits, usually with a variant of pineapple, oranges, apples, plums, papaya, plantain, raisins and prunes, are placed in boiling water with sugar and cinnamon then simmered.
On Christmas Eve, friends offered me ponche in the four different homes I visited and each one was delicious but very different in flavor. One had coconut added and another had chamomile fruit (manzanillas).
During the festive season in Antigua, Guatemala, tucked away behind the Mercado de Artesanías is a daily Christmas market, brimming with traditional decorations both natural and man-made.
On entering, a flood of color assaults the eyes from garishly stained sawdust, glistening tinsel, sparkling baubles and flashing decorative lights. Hawkers call out and seasonal music tickles the ears as the scent of flowers, chamomile and pine needles saturate the air.
It’s definitely worth an idle browse for an insight into some of Guatemala’s Christmas traditions and to feel the season’s spirit far away from home.
Pine needles and palm fronds
Locals strew pine needles, palm fronds, mosses and other foliage on the floor, string it up as decorations or use it to adorn the customary nativity scenes or nacimientos exhibited in churches and many homes, restaurants and hotels at this time of year.
Wicker baskets and plastic sheets overflow in the market with freshly cut green, yellowish-green and grey growth that stall-holders sell by the bag or in bundles already strung for hanging.
Chamomile or manzanillas are small, round, yellow (ripening to red) fruits that hawkers sell strung on long threads to create naturally scented Christmas adornments for the house. They are also tasty and are one of the ingredients in the hot seasonal fruit punch or ponche.
Tinsel, lights and baubles
Lambs, reindeer and nativity figures
Stalls display a riot of different sized human, animal and celestial figures made from an array of materials, including twigs (the reindeer), dried corn husks (the lambs) and plastic, for the popular nativity scenes or nacimientos and for general decoration.
Seasonal flowers abound in varying shades of red adding a festive hue to markets at Christmas time.
Stained sawdust and pebbles
Gaudy color splashes the market from brightly stained sawdust (aserrín) and little white pebbles sold by the bag to decorate nativity scenes. Guatemalans take the creation of nacimientos very seriously and are very imaginative in their personal depiction of them.
Selling desserts outside the market
Leaving the market
Colorful camionetas or chicken buses noisily roar past carrying passengers to and from the market.