Where the Devil Burns and Angels Sit with Dragonflies: Celebrating the Spirit of Christmas in GT
If angels serve as intermediaries between God and humans in the Bible, it is the Vision Serpent, Kukulkan, who acts as the messenger between kings and the gods in Mayan mythology.
Among the symbols of Kukulkan are dragonflies, and seeing them on Christmas ornaments alongside Biblical angels sums up how the Christmas season happens in Guatemala: an eclectic celebration that blends ancient Mayan spirituality with Christian beliefs.
A long time ago, in 1524, Spaniards under the command of Pedro de Alvarado arrived in Guatemala to begin the conquest of the Maya. But for the top lieutenant of Hernán Cortés, the takeover was neither swift nor smooth.
As a mighty empire that had already risen and fallen long before conquistadors stepped foot into their lands, the Mayans fought to preserve their culture and resisted the Spanish occupation for almost two centuries.
This prolonged and challenging affair forced the Spaniards to try out novel techniques to pacify and manage the resilient remnants of the ancient Mayan kingdoms. Although the Mayans were forced to convert to Roman Catholicism, it didn’t totally replace their old religion.
Today, families all over Guatemala have adopted the Christian tradition of celebrating Christmas while retaining the symbols and rituals of their native myths. While Christmas in the US means images of Santa Claus, Christmas in Guatemala comes to life with vibrant nacimientos.
Taking Out the Devil with Cleansing Fire
In Guatemala, the holiday season starts with a unique prelude: the Burning of the Devil, or La Quema del Diablo. According to local lore, the devil thrives and lurks in the dark corners of houses, hiding beneath the bed and among the trash.
To get rid of the devil, Guatemalans clean their homes. However, every 7th of December, taking out the trash takes a different direction. This time, the people of Guatemala will not be throwing the garbage into the usual bin. Instead, families gather in the streets to set fire on the trash they have collected.
This symbolic ritual is meant to chase away evil spirits and cleanse all households as Guatemalans prepare for the holy week surrounding the birthday of Jesus Christ. Often, to ultimately single out the biblical villain, people throw an effigy of the devil on top of the garbage.
Then, when the clock strikes six in the evening, participants set the garbage ablaze. As the piles of trash burn, fireworks light up the sky and Marimba bands play music, completing the cleansing ceremony and ensuring a devil-free Christmas for the year.
Setting the Scene with Hand Painted Nativity Sets
Like other countries in Latin America, the people of Guatemala plan and build nacimientos, or traditional Nativity scenes. Because Mayan artisans are greatly involved in assembling this artwork that depicts the birth of Baby Jesus in a humble stable, indigenous elements are used in the design and construction.
Generally, artisans get to work in late November, as nacimientos should ideally be completed by the early weeks of December. Gigantic nativity scenes are set up in Catholic churches in Antigua Guatemala, with life size figures of Mary, Joseph, and the Three Wise Men, also known as the Three Kings or Reyes Magos.
The essential characters in the Nativity scene are also accompanied by farm animals, such as sheep, donkeys, and cows. Regarded as art pieces, many of the featured figures in nativity sets for public viewing are genuine antique sculptures.
When Christmas Eve comes, the figure of the infant Jesus is gently placed on the scene, commemorating his birth. Nacimientos are often displayed under Christmas trees in homes all over Guatemala.
Christmas Trees that Go Beyond the Usual Reds and Greens
Christmas is not complete in Guatemala without the scent of pine trees, being the official Christmas tree of the land. However, cutting down trees is illegal in this country.
Mayans have a close affinity with the natural world, and they are working hard to protect their rainforests, home to the world’s most biodiverse and endangered ecosystems. Instead of illegally felling trees for Christmas, the indigenous people of Guatemala make Christmas trees from branches.
These branches are then decorated with pine needles, chamomile straps, chiribiscos, and bricho. Guatemalans also hang Christmas balls on their trees, but what makes their colorful decor so interesting is in the way they incorporate elements from their ancient religion into the Christian holiday.
When it comes to yuletide ornaments in Guatemala, Christmas stars, bells, and angels dangle on the tree together with significant motifs from Mayan mythology: ears of corn, roosters, rabbits, owls, Guacamayas, and more.
These intricately designed ornaments are made with a variety of materials. Guatemalan artists delicately put together beads to form the sacred animals, and weave threads in the traditional way to create colorful fabric Christmas balls.
Fending Off Nightmares Before Christmas with Angelic Worry Dolls
To the Mayans, leaving their troubles to a worry doll may be the perfect way to make the holiday season even brighter. During this time of the year, Guatemalan artisans craft colorful little worry dolls dressed as Christmas angels to ward off worries for a truly merry Christmas.
In Mayan tradition, worry dolls are made for little children who are experiencing nightmares. Before bedtime, they should tell the worry doll their sorrows, then put the doll under their pillow. That is when the magic happens: the doll worries on their behalf while they sleep.
When morning comes, the worry doll will have completed its job. Mayan children will then place it back in its special woven bag or wooden box, so that it can also recover from pulling an all-nighter — a loving act that teaches Mayan children to care for others as well.
Legend has it that a long time ago, the Mayan princess, Ixmucane, received a special gift from the sun god. This gift granted her the wisdom and power to solve any human problem, and from here, worry dolls came to existence.
This cathartic and thoughtful tradition has been acknowledged by the medical community worldwide. Today, worry dolls are used in the fields of psychiatry and pediatrics to provide a healthy and natural way for both children and adults to express pent-up emotions, reduce insomnia, recover from past trauma, and generally relieve stress.
Wrapping It Up: Finding the Right Gifts for a Brighter Christmas
With 2020 being a tough year due to the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak, a Christmas worry angel can go a long way in soothing the troubles of an uncertain world. If you’re looking for an authentic Mayan worry doll for yourself or for a loved one this holiday season, you’ve come to the right place.
Handicraft Products La Selva, S.A. (From the Mayan People to You) has been working with Mayan artisans in Guatemala since 1986. We manufacture and ship traditional Guatemalan handicrafts worldwide so that wherever you may be, you can get yourself a unique, cultural keepsake with a story to tell.
Browse our Christmas catalogue and you’ll find a wide array of authentic Guatemalan handicrafts that are perfect for a Mayan-inspired Christmas celebration: Christmas worry dolls, nativity art, fabric balls, and more. Feliz Navidad!