Friday, December 15, 2006

Beat the Devil

Being American or from Protestant stock or generally unbothered by religion, I had no idea that there actually is an official start of the Christmas Season. Apparently December 8 is the day of the Immaculate Conception, which leaves only 17 days until Christmas Day. I'm not sure if that's in the Bible or if it was just established by some papal bull or the Knights Templar or whoever makes such decisions, but it seems to imply less of an Immaculate Conception and more of an Immaculate Nearly-Full-Term-Baby-Jesus-Insertion. In any case, as in America, the Christmas trees and the carols playing in the grocery store and such have been going on for a while, but the religious celebrations just started last week. Apparently there are ceremonies of some sort where they cart around Joseph and Mary sculptures in a symbolic search for an inn every night for the next week.

Before all the Christmassing gets started, there's a final blowout, not unlike Mardi Gras, except that after the blowout, no fasting is required. In Guatemala, December 7th is the Quema del Diablo, or Burning of the Devil. The idea is sort of that one removes all the malign spirits from one's house through the symbolic ritual of dumping any trash or other unwanted possessions on the street and setting them ablaze. In many neighborhoods and towns, this tradition is pretty much unchanged, and the local news (immediately preceding my interview, in fact) had a lengthy story about how it really isn't good for anyone's lungs to burn unwanted tires, even if they do provide hours worth of incendiary entertainment.

In the posh neighborhood full of doctors and construction magnates and foreign diplomats, there aren't many tires being burned anymore. Making the holiday somewhat more literal and yet less practical, many now celebrate by purchasing a papier-mâché devil and burning that instead of a pile of garbage. The child labor force of Guatemala must be working serious overtime in November, because on December 7th, all variety of fireworks stands and mock devil outlets suddenly appear, offering diablos from the small and economical to larger-than-life-size. Ideally, the devil is stuffed with firecrackers, piñata-style. At dusk, the devils are burned, and fireworks are set off all over town. We could see fireworks in every direction, going up right behind our building, in the yards our balcony overlooks, and dangerously close to a building up the block. Any José with a few bucks in his pocket can buy the kind of fireworks in Guatemala City that Americans can only get in Wyoming. I'm not sure if the Fourth of July used to have the thrilling 360-degree spectacles of neighbors in every direction shooting off huge fireballs. But I assume we banned these things for a reason, and I hesitate to guess how many Guatemalans lost fingers last Thursday. Our whole neighborhood smelled of burnt gunpowder and whatever other toxic substance they use to make sparks green or orange.

If you've ever wondered what you're missing by not living in Guatemala, you should know that The Lovely Katherine declared Quema del Diablo the best holiday in the world. That might be putting it a little strongly, but it does have a freewheeling spirit that American holidays maybe once had, but no longer do.


Anonymous said...

I'd just like to note how thoroughly impressed I am that you actually went to the trouble of spelling out "papier-mâché" (which I have just conveniently copied and pasted) instead of the lazy man's "paper mache." Good show, sir, very good indeed.

Anonymous said...

Hmm. The burning devil thing kind of reminds me of the viejo ano New Year's ritual, where you pin all your cares and worries onto a sort of stuffed scarecrow guy, then burn him up.