December 18, 2010
The holiday season is a special time of year. I’ve always absolutely loved the holidays. It’s not about the presents for me. I’ve never been big on that, even as a kid. What I love most about the holidays are white lights glittering everywhere and excuses to have festive gatherings with all of your favorite people. Ugly holiday sweaters are a bonus.
It’s a bit difficult to be so far away from all of my people this time of the year. I want to be at the holiday parties all of my friends are raving about. I want to see the Embarcadero buildings all lit up, the tree in Union Square, the wreaths in the Macy’s windows. I love the holiday kitsch. A lot of people get really bummed out this time of year, and I feel it, too, for the first time ever being so removed from all of my people’s celebrations.
The holiday tradition that I miss the most is putting up the Christmas tree. In my family, it is a tradition to get ornaments every year – one from your parents and one from your godparents – that represents your life over the past year. Most of the ornaments from my childhood are various representations of cats (I was quite the animal lover and adopted the neighborhood feral felines), but as I grew older they morphed to represent sports, arts and travel. My Christmas tree is my life history, and each year when I put it up I get to relive countless old memories. Every year I would look forward to the day after Thanksgiving when my mom and I would avoid the crowds by staying in and putting up our tree and trimmings. Of all of my family’s traditions, and there are quite a few, the Christmas tree is by far my most beloved.
The great news is that by being here during this time of year, I get to learn all of the Guatemalan holiday traditions. At first I thought about staying in Guatemala during our upcoming break. But, I realized it was too important to me to be with my family, and, luckily, it turns out most of the mayhem in Guatemala takes place well before the actual holiday anyway.
Things here ramped up the first week of December, with December 7th being the big kick-off. This date is la quemada del diablo, or the burning of the devil. The devil represents all of the bad things that have happened over the past year. The idea is that by burning all of the bad, we can start again anew from the ashes. This also purifies people to celebrate the Immaculate Conception, the feast of Mary, the next day. This tradition has been taking place in Guatemala for centuries. At first, families would light lanterns. But, the poor could not afford this, so they burned garbage. Eventually, this burning of garbage morphed into the burning of the devil.
After December 7th, a few outside decorations started popping up. My host family is incredibly proud of their two angels that hang from the front of the house, which they claim to be the only ones in Antigua. I don’t have the heart to break it to them that I’ve spied a few others. We also decorated the inside of the house. In a predominantly Catholic country, most Guatemalans stay true to the roots of the holiday by displaying religious iconography. The decorations in my house included angels galore and a manger scene, complete with arriving wise men along a real dirt path, with farm animals lining the way. There is a two-foot lighted tree in the front room, but I think that was put up mostly to make the foreigners feel at home. “We’re your Guatemalan family,” my hosts often remind us. They also filled me in that live Christmas trees are actually illegal in Guatemala now as a step toward protecting the environment, so if you want a Christmas tree, it has to be a fake one.
The other great tradition that I love is ponche. Ponche, or punch, is a hot cider-like beverage. It is made by cooking down a mixture of fruits, but the recipe differs from family to family. I was invited to help my host mom and her daughter make a batch. Ours included apples, pears, pineapple and papaya. Now, I can’t say that I loved it, but I was happy for the experience. Church members meet in big groups and bring their ponche as they do posadas door-to-door. Posadas are a reenactment of Mary and Joseph being turned away from hotels before they were finally accepted at the stable. Upon arriving at a house, those acting as the pilgrims sing a song about the pilgrims’ journey. Each family acts as an innkeeper who turns the couple away, until finally reaching . I wasn’t able to take part in this part of the celebration, but singing and sharing with neighbors is definitely a tradition I can get behind. It reminds me of my home in the Mission District of San Francisco when my Mexican neighbors would invite over all their friends, family and gringa neighbors for posadas nightly.
That’s my take-away from my holiday season here in Guatemala. Nothing about the holidays here is as commercialized as it is back in the States. Here, it’s still almost purely about connecting with your family, friends and community while celebrating the religious significance of the holiday. Now, I’m not religious, but I find beauty in the purity and simplicity that has been retained here. I think many Americans find this time of the year to be so difficult because we’ve misplaced our priorities onto things that don’t really matter: spending too much on the “perfect” gift, the “perfect” party outfit, the “perfect” hors d’oeuvres or the “perfect” tree trimmings. I happen to think my hodgepodge ornaments are perfect because they’re perfectly me. That’s worth way more than anything you can put a bow on.
This week, I saw peace in the spirit of the season.