written by: Eric W. Vogt
• edited by: Wendy Finn
• updated: 11/18/2012
Guatemalan Christmas is not just an extension of Mexican Christmas, any more than a Canadian Christmas is an extension of Christmas in the USA. The Mayan culture is alive and not so far below the surface!
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The ways in which Guatemalans celebrate Christmas are similar to those of other Spanish-speaking nations and other countries in which Roman Catholicism is prevalent. Nacimientos, or nativity scenes are plentiful. The religious processions, in which saints are escorted like royalty on brightly festooned litters shielded from the sun by umbrellas and canopies, they do too in Guatemala. They also go to midnight mass, known as misa de gallo, or the rooster's mass. But even though the mass is called rooster's mass because supposedly a rooster crowed at midnight (which they normally do not do), the Guatemalans go to "midnight" mass early in the morning, when the roosters really are crowing.
The day on which children receive gifts is January 6, Epiphany, called Three Kings' Day -- el Día de los Reyes Magos (also known elsewhere as Twelfth Night, as in Shakespeare's play by that name). As is almost universal, this day is a day for the children. They have been busy getting ready, writing letters to the Three Kings, as they are the ones bringing gifts. Before Guatemalan children go to bed on January 5th, they leave their shoes outside, and some hay and water for the Wise Men's camels.
The most interesting feature of Guatemalan Christmas for adults is what originally, in pre-Christian times (400 hundred years ago) was done in honor of, or more likely, as an act of sun worship, now syncretized into the Catholic calendar. The festival is held on the saint day of St. Thomas -- one of the twelve apostles, on December 21st. This day is the shortest day of the year, the winter solstice (give or take a day and some hours or minutes). It is celebrated in the city of Chichicastenango, as St. Thomas is the town's patron saint.
A very tall pole is erected in a large square and two ropes are twined around it, from bottom to top. Two men climb to the top of this pole and their legs are bound together at the ankles (think of bungee jumping) and they leap from the tower, unwinding the ropes as they descend spiraling in a very large circle and from a great height. It is believed that if they manage to land on their feet (something they will definitely be skilled at doing, so as not to land on their heads), the days will once again grow longer.