How To Celebrate Christmas In Guatemala and the Meaning of Christmas

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Last year I learned the meaning of Christmas.  I spent Christmas 2010 in Guatemala, away from the snow of Colorado and more importantly away from my family.  Guatemala, or at least my home city of Xela, doesn’t celebrate Christmas the way most of the world celebrates the birth of Christ.  Sure at the Inter-American School, where I worked, we had a Christmas Play.  Last year the elementary performed the well known play Izzy Saves Christmas, where Izzy the mouse saves Christmas.  Haven’t heard of it?  Well, it’s a Guatemalan staple, or it is now.

I also taught my students what the best kind of Christmas party is; a White Elephant Party.  Who doesn’t want to go home with an alarm clock in a country where it is better to use your cellphone as an alarm at night, because anything plugged into the wall just might lose power.

But where Guatemala, and especially Xela, differs from Christmas in the United States is Christmas Eve.  Growing up as a Presbyterian Pastor’s kid in the United States, my family’s Christmas tradition centered around our church’s Christmas Eve service.  Every year, especially when I was younger, my mom would force me into my Christmas best, drive me and my sisters to church, and we would light the Christ Candle.  As I documented last year, in my blog I’ll Be Home For Christmas, my family always had the misfortune of lighting the Christ Candle, which never went smoothly.  I fought with my sister in front of 1,000 plus people who’d come to church expecting to hear how Christ came to bring peace on earth and goodwill to men.  The next year they expected something else, and I did not fail them.   I dropped a lit match on the carpet floor.  Fortunately the church didn’t burn down.

I did not have to light the Christ Candle for Christmas Eve in Xela.  I was a spectator, surrounded by friends and Guatemalan families who had come to celebrate Christ’s birth.  As much as I missed being with my family last year I enjoyed witnessing how the Latin culture celebrates Christmas.  My favorite part of the service at Saint Mark’s was the Posada.  A handful of kids marched into the church dressed as Guatemalan Marias and Joses with sumbreros and mustaches followed by a very Guatemalan baby Jesus Cristo.

Shortly after the service, after I had sung my share of Spanish Christmas Carols I headed back to my house with Skyy a fireworks crazed freshman , his mom Susan, whose house I lived at, Jen (co-worker), Blake and Amy (co-workers), Blake’s family, and Holland (another co-worker) and his boys to set off fireworks.  Ask anyone in Guatemala and they will tell you setting off fireworks is the real reason for the season.  I may have spent upwards of twenty dollars on fireworks, which didn’t even match all of the explosives Skyy brought to the table.  Us guys took the next couple of hours detonating our ammunition.  At midnight Xela sounded as if it were under attack, the entire city lit up like the large Christ Candle.

Christmas Eve has aways been family time for me, quiet and relaxing (after the Christmas Eve service at least).  This year I plan on watching “How Earnest Saved Christmas” with my two sisters.  I look forward to waking up on Christmas morning and being with my family.  But I will always remember how much fun I had lighting off fireworks and celebrating my savior’s birth with people my Guatemalan family.

Christmas is not about what you do, what you give or what you get, but in the end it is about enjoying the birth of Christ with those who are around you.  No matter where you are.  Last year on Christmas day Donna and Laurel McMarlin (Laurel was one of my co-workers) welcomed me into their family and shared their Christmas with me.  They helped make what could have been a lonely day, a day full of love and celebration, which made for a perfect Christmas.

Mother’s Day Twice a Year

Tuesday morning five a.m. and an explosion rips me from my sleep.  Who’s birthday is it? (It is common for birthdays to be celebrated here with a barrage of fireworks at the crack of dawn.) I think as I roll over and try to drift back to sleep.  It wasn’t someone’s birthday, it was Mother’s Day.  But wasn’t Mother’s Day on Sunday?

Here in Guatemala, Dia De Las Madres is always celebrated on the 10th of May, and what better way to celebrate your mom than to set off a battery of fire works.  At least I wasn’t woken by a live marimba band at 5 in the morning like I was two years ago on Mother’s Day; horrible.  All morning, as I taught PE outside on the basketball court, the sound of mothers being celebrated drowned out the screams of excitement from my elementary students.

If you are ever in need of fireworks, you don’t need to drive to the county line because Guatemala has an abundant supply of what you want; even after the firework factory exploded during lunch last week, I had been sitting in the library when I heard a distant rumble.  At first I thought it was thunder, but it was a blue sky day.  Maybe Xela was under attack!  Nope!  The fireworks factory had caught fire due to the heat and exploded.  Sadly, the explosion didn’t limit the amount of fireworks sold to the many sons and daughters in Xela.  My Tuesday morning was one explosion after another.  And fortunately, unlike on Sunday, none of those explosions happened inside of my body.

Guatemalans really know how to celebrate their moms.  But just because in the states people don’t set off fireworks doesn’t mean us, US Americans, don’t love our moms.  On Sunday, I spent most of my day Skyping with my family.  Holidays are hard days for me to be away from my family, I can’t physically walk up to my mom and give her a hug.  As I sat Skyping with  my mom, it almost felt like I was home.  But almost only works in horse shoes and fireworks.  Like I almost regained my hearing after the umpteenth million firework exploded on the Guatemalan’s May 10th Mother’s Day.

I’m glad that my family celebrates Mother’s Day in a more laid back fashion.  As nice as it was to Skype my mom I would rather have been able to be in Colorado and light off a few fireworks to celebrate her in Guatemalan fashion; at least I would have been there.

I love Guatemala, all of it’s quirks and explosions.  It is a unique little country and has really become a beloved second home, but it’s hard to be here during major holidays.  On Mother’s Day I felt the pull to be home so I could spend some quality time with my family for the first time in nearly ten months.  But on the flip side, with a little more than month left here in Guatemala I don’t want to leave.  I want to stay and soak up all of the little bits of Guatemala that I can.  It is hard living with these two desires.  I know I’m moving, but I’ve also decided to live in the present as much as possible, so I am trying my hardest not to think about my move.  I love how Guatemala celebrates their moms and yet I know moving back home will be a great thing; I’ll be able to celebrate my mom in person.  What’s better than that?