– by Debra Goble –
In the U.S., we’re big on traditions – especially when it comes to Christmas. Cutting down a tree to put in the living room; decorating our homes with tinsel and lights; gathering with family and indulging in honey ham and various casseroles.
Traditions are so important to many Americans that if we move to another country, we often do anything we can to participate in the traditions we know and love to remind us of home.
For many immigrants living in America, they experience that, too. In the small town of Blountsville, Alabama, there’s a large Hispanic population, including many immigrants from Guatemala. Every year they participate in Christmas traditions that remind them of home.
While many Guatemalan Christmas traditions are unique, some are comparable to the ones we celebrate in the United States.
Christmas decorations are a must
In Guatemala, families usually gather to create villages and country scenes of the nativity. They sometimes use colored sawdust, moss, gallitos (air plants) and fresh pine and cypress leaves. Great detail goes into creating Mary and Joseph along with the three wise men and manger. These figures are made of clay and sometimes show Mary and Joseph dressed in traditional Mayan clothing.
A sparkling Christmas Eve
On Noche Buena, or Christmas Eve in Guatemala, you will find many families watching a fireworks display. Families spend the evening together sharing music and gifts. Just before midnight, they exchange a Christmas hug. When it hits midnight, they will light hundreds of fireworks or firecrackers to celebrate the birth of Jesus. A family prayer is said around the tree, and it is customary to open presents shortly after midnight. On Christmas morning the air is filled with smoke from all the celebrations.
Food is a universal connector
In Guatemala, the most important celebration happens on Christmas Eve. Families get together and enjoy a traditional Christmas dinner which usually consists of Guatemalan tamales with Chile Colorado, the most popular traditional dish. Punches made with fresh fruit are also very traditional.
Of all the Guatemalan traditions in Blountsville, the children talk most about making the tamales and the delicious fruit punch they love. Making tamales is a great chore. All the women get together to pad out the masa (a maize dough that comes from ground corn) into round balls. The masa balls are made into tortilla circles and flattened for the filling by using a press. Then they are filled with chicken or pork. In Guatemala, it isn’t the Christmas season without tamales. On Christmas Eve, families celebrate together and eat the main Christmas meal. It is made of several traditional dishes but always includes Guatemalan tamales.
Guatemala is thought to be a warm climate country but starts to get colder in November through January. A special hot punch called ponche de frutas is a favorite delicious homemade drink. Generally, the women make this in big pots on the stove. This type of punch is typically made from memory and includes fresh and dried fruit, apples, pineapples, raisins, prunes, papaya and other tropical fruits. The liquid mixture includes water, cinnamon, sugar, and milk. I have had this at Christmas time for several years and it is delicious. It seems to be such a special drink only made at Christmas.
A day to be with family
With all the events leading up to the holidays, Christmas Day is a day to relax in contrast to many non-Latin countries. In Guatemalan families, you won’t see children springing out of bed at 5 a.m. to look under the tree. They believe it is a day to sleep in and enjoy the company of your family. There is no big Christmas dinner because it all happened the night before.
While many of the Guatemalan families in Blountsville may be far from relatives living in Guatemala, their Christmas traditions and foods keep them tied to their heritage.
Many of the Guatemalan traditions are not so different from American ones. This Christmas, I hope we can learn that we’re more similar to our neighbors than we might think.