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.
Every 12th of December in Guatemala on the Día de la Virgen de Guadalupe children throughout the country dress up in colorful, traditional indigenous costumes and carry an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe in local processions. Usually marimba and hordes of traditional food stalls go with the festivities.
Originating in Mexico after the Spanish conquest, when the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared to an indigenous peasant, the custom continues throughout the Americas.
In Antigua the celebrations take place in front of the beautiful baroque church of La Merced. Rustic mini-scenes backed by painted images of the Virgin are set up in front of the church and parents pose their children for photographers. Tiny replicas of adults, the boys have mustaches painted on their faces and the girls little baskets tied to their heads. Each scene has a variety of typical Guatemalan everyday items for the children to use as props including miniature marimba, tortillas on a comal, model horses and a strange collection of live chickens and toy tigers.
Colorful images of the Virgin.
Children dressed up in traditional indigenous costumes.
Smoke and deafening explosions filled the air for maybe an hour as men ran through a minefield of granadas (translated to grenades) lighting the fireworks and firecrackers tied to them and bombas blasted noisily into the air from inside a heavy, metal tube placed vertically on the ground. Spectators clamped their hands to their ears, flinched, cowered and emitted screams and cheers as rogue fireworks shot off in random directions.
Every 7th of December a parade or convite slowly makes its way through the streets of the former capital Ciudad Vieja just outside Antigua in Guatemala. The following day they celebrate the town’s virgin patron’s day, Día de la Virgen de La Concepción, and after mass in the cathedral everyone crowds into the plaza outside for the noisy display of granadas.
Nowadays, Guatemalans celebrate all Catholic festivals with fireworks, firecrackers and bombas and due to a myriad of religious festivals throughout the year, it’s a rare day when there’s silence in the streets.
On this day, when the sounds subside and the smoke clears but with ringing ears and the sharp scent of gunpowder still in the nostrils, colorful folkloric dances begin. These mainly originated in the Iberian Peninsula and were probably brought over to Guatemala during colonial times picking up their own flavor in local towns and are a mix of theatrical dances and presentations.
The Dance of the 24 Devils, the Dance of the Seven Vices and Seven Virtues and the Dance of the Moors and Christians are three of the most popular.
Every year on the 7th of December a parade of floats makes its way through the streets of the former capital of Guatemala, Ciudad Vieja just outside Antigua. It’s customary to hold a convite the day before a procession and this one ushers in el Día de la Virgen de La Concepción.
There was a strange and colorful mix of religious and cultural themes including angels, indians, Spaniards, cowboys, devils, men dressed up as women and cartoon characters. It was a truly Guatemalan experience.
No festival in Guatemala is complete without the sound of marimba.
Another band member.
A float waiting for the parade to begin.
A hungry dwarf.
Little angels sitting on the float.
And another angel.
The pirates are coming.
And here they are.
A cowboy handing out flyers for the next days folk dance schedule.
A Spaniard’s horse.
A Spaniard and his horse.
A cowboy on horseback.
An indian wearing a feathered headdress.
A friendly indian going the right way.
A bunch of cowboys.
The bull in action.
Mary and some angels.
A peasant with his bottle of Guatemalan rum.
Who is this?
Reindeer and a Christmas theme.
Not sure who this is.
All together handing out flyers.
And another beauty with her drunken beau and his bottle of Gallo beer.
What a happy face.
Really going for it.
The first of the Abuelitas Parranderas or Partying Grandmothers.
Two more beauties.
Waiting in line.
They go in two by two.
The partying begins.
Really going for it. These women were awesome dancers.
Showing the footwork.
That was hard work. So elegant.
And who are these?
Perched on his bicycle with rum bottle for fuel, the devil glared down on those leaving Antigua for Guatemala City, several weeks before being set ablaze.
La Quema del Diablo, or the Burning of the Devil, is an annual tradition on the 7th of December in many Guatemalan towns, its origins dating back to colonial times.
A “will”, full of wit and innuendo at local politicians, is read out to hundreds of spectators followed by the torching of the devil at 6 p.m. He goes up in flames and smoke along with all the negativity of the year, lighting the way for the Christmas celebrations and a positive start to the New Year.
A crescendo of firecrackers deafen and threaten the crowds before the bomberos put out the glowing embers around the bicycle skeleton and everyone wanders away in festive spirit.
Devil with empty rum bottle.
Preparing for the torching.
Going up in Flames
Today, November the 18th, was the ninth Carrera de Charolas or the Race of Trays here in Antigua, Guatemala.
Waiters, waitresses and bartenders raced about two kilometers along the uneven, cobble-stoned streets, each carrying a tray laden with bottled and canned drinks, the winner reaching the finish line without toppling or losing the tray’s contents.
This is a popular annual event here and locals and tourists line the streets clapping and cheering as they pass.
There are two races, one for men and one for women. However there are a greater number of men and as they run faster it’s more entertaining to watch.
The winners receive Q1,300 (about $166) each and runners-up also pick up smaller cash prizes, diplomas, medals and t-shirts.
The restaurant La Fonda de la Calle Real organizes the contest which is open to contenders from all over Guatemala, El Salvador and Mexico. Proceeds go to the Fundación Cultural Duane Carter to help fund its lending library for students.