When we decided to stay in Xela to take another language course we purposely decided to stay in a home stay in part because we wanted to experience a traditional Guatemalan christmas. We knew nothing about it before we came, except that the majority of people are Catholics or Protestants so we expected a religious element. While we did get to experience the religious side of the celebration, the rest of the even was a teeny bit of an anti-climax. Firstly, our school didn’t have any Christmas themed activities or excursions like we were hoping they would. We know our old school in Oaxaca has a group meal with some traditional foods, and goes on a walking tour around the city to see some of the Christmas-y sights so we were expecting something similar here but nothing at all happened.
Secondly, our families celebration of Christmas was about as low key as you can get. They did decorate the house with a lovely tree and pine needles sprinkled all over the floor (apparently it’s illegal to cut down trees in Xela so instead people buy big bags of pine needles and distribute them through their homes to get the Christmas-y smell). There was also a cute little crafted creation displaying the birth of Jesus, and some decorations on the walls.
We learnt during our classes that Christmas is celebrated differently amongst different families in Guatemala. Catholics celebrate differently to Protestants, and then there are some families that choose a more ‘modern’ celebration and those who retain traditional practices. I think our family fell somewhere in between, and they were also unusual in that they don’t have any family that lives in Xela with them (normally people go around visiting their friends and families houses taking gifts of food and eating something with the family). When we got home from school I asked if I could help at all with the preparations, and although the family didn’t seem too keen initially I insisted so they let me help make the food with them. They told me that it was only women’s work to prepare the food so Guy wasn’t allowed to participate. We sat and chatted for a couple of hours as we filled and folded banana leaves with a mixture of mushed rice, chicken, raisins, prunes and salsa. They were all put into a couple of huge pots and cooked in water for a couple of hours later in the evening.
We also learnt how to make ponche – cinnamon bark, dried hibiscus flowers, pepper corns, tamarind seeds, ginger, sugar and water. We drunk it with a shot of rum and it was DELICIOUS.
Later in the afternoon the topic of religion came up and for the first time they asked us what religion we were. Our reply that we were atheists was met with a slightly awkward silence which I quickly tried to fill by saying that we found other religions very interesting and we loved to learn more about them. A little while later they invited us to go to church with them, and although we didn’t really want to we couldn’t face causing them any more disappointment so we agreed (much to their delight). The church was absolutely beautiful, with columns adorned in twinkling fairy lights, a huge christmas tree laden with sparkling ornaments and a wonderfully detailed construction showing Jesus’s birth. We got there early which was lucky because by the time the service began the place was completely packed with people sitting and standing in the aisles and spilling outside. The sermon was conducted in Spanish, and while we understood parts of it it didn’t hold much interest for us. We passed the time people watching which was fascinating, especially admiring the women in their traditional outfits and the gorgeous babies being so lovingly cared for by the young and old.
We arrived home at about 10pm, cracked open some beer and red wine and sat around the table talking about Football (the father is football mad). We gave the children presents of chocolate and candies which were warmly received, and the parents a box of assorted cookies and a bottle of raspberry flavored Mezcal from Oaxaca which weren’t quite so warmly received. I’m not sure if they didn’t like the presents, or if they felt awkward because they hadn’t bought us anything, or if they just don’t show a lot of emotion but they didn’t seem too impressed and offered a lukewarm thank you. The cookies have been eaten so I guess they didn’t hate them. Update: a couple of days later they told us that they’re keeping the bottle of Mezcal for when their daughter graduates high school (in three years time).
At around 12am the gas ran out so the food which was only half cooked couldn’t be eaten. The mum rushed out to try to find a shop that was open but didn’t have any luck so we nibbled on some peanuts and pineapple slices and let off some fireworks in the street. That was really fun actually because here you can buy the sort of fireworks that are banned in New Zealand ha. We all hugged and said Feliz Navidad to each other. At 1am the father returned from visiting someone and bought a bottle of gas with him – our saviour! So finally at 2am we ate pachas – traditional food for christmas and drunk ponche with some run in it. Another student staying in the house had also made yorkshire puddings and gravy which were delicious (or so we thought – I’m not sure the family liked them too much). The food was nice, but it wasn’t quite the feast we had anticipated. There wasn’t any dessert, or a range of dishes – just the pachas.
By 2:30am we were exhausted so we hugged everyone goodnight (this family loves their hugs!) and went to bed. The next morning we woke around 8am but the family was asleep still so we decided to go for a hike up one of the mountains which was really cool. Guy went for a run up there last week after school and upon reaching the summit had a little boy sitting alone in a tree say to him “es muy peligroso” (it’s very dangerous) and then found a bunch of police standing around looking shifty, so I was a bit apprehensive about going up it but it was really fun – it had great views of the city and we saw hawks gliding in front of us. When we came back to the house we had leftover pachas for lunch and spent the afternoon watching Game of Thrones in bed (we’re rewatching the first season).
All in all it wasn’t the Christmas we were expecting, but it was fun to experience something a little different. We don’t know where we’ll be next year but I think we’ll make an effort to make it a little special next time.
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