Christmas is an annual celebration traditionally held on December 25 in commemoration of the birth of Jesus Christ. It has religious and cultural ties on different parts of the world especially in countries wherein the majority population are Catholics. For these Catholic countries, celebrating Christmas is more than just a gift-giving celebration but a celebration deeply rooted to religion. Such an example is the Quema del Diablo in Guatemala.
Burning the Devil or Quema del Diablo is a festival in Guatemala being celebrated every year on 7th of December. It is done on the day before the feast of Immaculate Concepcion as a prelude to Christmas. During this day at exactly 6 in the evening, people would make a bonfire in front of their houses. These bonfires were mostly made from the garbage collected in the house. It’s because the Guatemalans believed that burning their garbage will clean their house off the devil and the bad.
Before, citizens would burn garbage with plastic, rubber, and fuel mixed in. But since it has been criticized for not being environmentally friendly because it causes higher levels of pollution, they opted to burn effigies made of paper mache with firecrackers inside instead. This also opened a new market for Guatemalans during the festival. You will find vendors lined along the street selling fireworks and devil piñatas of varying sizes with designs ranging from simple to intricate.
This tradition of Quema del Diablo dates back to colonial times. It is carried out as a spiritual cleansing in which the garbage symbolizes the devil and burning them means burning the devil. This act is done in preparation for the conception of Mary thus the devil is being burned the day before the Blessed Virgin Mary conceives or the Immaculate Conception. It was believed that Mary is free from sin at the moment of her conception in order to become the mother of the Saviour. That is why this tradition also represents getting rid of sin by means of burning and starting anew.
The tradition originally started with people decorating the front of their houses with lanterns. However not everyone can afford lanterns, and that is where the burning tradition began. Those who could not afford the lanterns started collecting garbage inside their house and lighting them up on fire as an alternative to lighting lanterns. Since then, it has become a major part of the festival in the country. In Ciudad Vieja, the first former capital of Guatemala, they even burn an effigy of a devil or satan about three stories tall in the city square. This tradition is deemed to be the oldest and the most important in America, and in Guatemala. The Ministry of Culture and Sports declared this tradition of Quema del Diablo an Intangible Cultural Heritage of the Nation through a Government Agreement.
Other countries also have similar burning traditions. Colombia has Años Nuevos wherein they burn life-sized dummies that represents a person’s sinful self from the previous year. This signifies burning of the old self to make way for the reformed. As such, burning of effigies or devil piñatas can also symbolize burning of the devil in oneself as well. By burning them it is synonymous with burning all of the bad habits we have from the previous year and to start anew.
In cities all throughout the country, the Devil is burned at the stroke of six or what they call the devil’s hour. Altogether, the citizens chase away the devil and bad luck to make way for the good and to prepare for the coming of Jesus Christ and the New Year as well. As another year comes to a close, everyone is unified during this time. All wishing for a harmonious, peaceful and better Guatemala. All hoping that these would be more than just a reverie.