O Holy Night

Each time I passed one of the Gallo Christmas trees I had to smile. I remember a time when the world and I were very very young and Stan Freberg’s, “Green Christmas,” was included in the holiday programming of The Midnight Special, a weekly radio broadcast from the University of Chicago. Freberg was known for his topical satire and “Green Christmas” had one chorus that remains a mind-sticker half a century after it was written.

We wish you a merry Christmas,
We wish you a merry Christmas,
We wish you a merry Christmas,
And please buy our beer!

As it happens, Gallo is a beer that is widely sold in Guatemala and the company donates decorated trees to communities throughout the country. What makes them unusual is they are all topped with a rooster, the corporate logo, rather than an angel or star. Freberg, obviously, was a visionary satirist.

Today is Christmas Eve and we are heading to the Mayan village of
Panajachel before traveling on to Lake Atitlán. It’s a long trip and the two lane highways are not in great condition. There are few alternate routes so the existing highways pock quickly from use. Quite selfishly, I find the slow pace to the highlands is great for viewing and reflection.

The area outside Guatemala City is a lush jungle green but it quickly yields to the savanna-like foliage of banana plantations. As the elevation changes coffee becomes the crop of choice and the landscape greens again. Eventually things begin to brown and corn, evidenced by miles and miles of dry but standing stalks, brings us into Mayan country where maize is obviously king. Not all of the villages we pass through are alike in language or belief. There are twenty-one Mayan languages spoken in Guatemala and while nominally Christian there are Mayan communities where the ancient religions are still practiced.

Christmas as we know it came slowly to Guatemala. The Christmas tree was introduced following WWII but the visions of sugar plums that run through Mayan heads will depend on how much money they make. Santa, however, is shared by rich and poor alike.

As we approached some of the larger Mayan villages, first small, than larger groups of children formed on the roadside. They were obviously waiting for something and several miles later we discovered what. Santa had come to town with candy. Mayan children are taught to wait and share. This particular group of children had formed three lines that initially looked like the expanded bellows of an accordion. Once they saw Santa the lines compressed and became so tightly packed you could not slip a piece of paper between the children. Santa, who was short and slight and had a beard that reached to his knees, had a few pieces of candy for each of them. He would work his way up the highway until all the children had their Christmas treat.

Later that afternoon we were in the village of Panajachel and had a unique experience. The Mayans are self-sufficient. It would be a mistake to say they can conjure something from nothing, but they see opportunities that many miss. If you are selling firewood, chances are they’ll follow right behind you selling matches. Now Panajachel is a market town that is usually crowded with tourists and trail-worn trekkers wearing sneakers or sandals. In that crowd, two little boys carrying a brush and a shoeshine box zeroed in on my husband who, for whatever reason, was the only guy in town wearing leather shoes. In broken and barely understandable English they asked, “Shoeshine mister?” I couldn’t repress a smile any more than you can repress entrepreneurial spirit.

Guatemalans celebrate Christmas on Christmas Eve. It is an occasion when extended families come together to share the main Christmas meal which includes three types of tostados, Guatemalan tamales and Carne Mechada. A fruit punch, el ponche, liberally laced with Guatemala’s national Rum Zacapa is served throughout the evening. Some families attend a mass at midnight that is called “Misa de Gallo” (The Mass of the Rooster), given that name because it is said that the only time that a rooster crowed at midnight was on the day that Jesus was born. Other families remain at home and participate in another tradition. Most homes have a small nativity scene under their Christmas trees and at midnight the youngest child places the infant Jesus in the manger. At midnight a prayer is said around the tree and presents are then opened.

Another thing that sets a Guatemalan Christmas apart from others is the literal explosion of fireworks that occurs at midnight when volley after volley is set off to celebrate the birth of Jesus. The barrage continues for 20 to 30 minutes and in some places there are beautiful pyrotechnic displays to be seen. Many families will have a second meal following the fireworks display and it is not unusual for festivities to last until three or four in the morning.

It is not surprising that Christmas Day is very quiet.

2 thoughts on “O Holy Night

  1. I’m so delighted to find you blogging on the web again; I’ve missed you at OPB. Lovely story. I look forward to reading the other posts. Happy New Year, Mary.–Julie

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