Nativity scenes have been a tradition in Guatemala for centuries, much before Santa Claus and Christmas trees arrived.
They were originally based on the descriptions found in the Gospel of Luke. St. Francis of Assisi received special permission from Pope Honorius III to make the first nativity scene with figures of Joseph and the Virgin Mary in 1223 with the help of a local landowner, Giovanni Delita or Velita in Greccio, Italy. These are now known as the Italian presepes.
Baby Jesus from a nativity scene, photo by Juan José Yas c.1915 (CIRMA)
This tradition was adopted in Spain in medieval times where nacimientos were quite elaborate and sometimes made with gold, ivory and carved woods. Spain produced ornate nacimientos in the royal church chapels.
The first nacimientos were brought to Guatemala with the conquerors after 1524, and Santo Hermano Pedro de San José de Betancur was the main promotor of nacimientos in 1625 in houses in Santiago de Guatemala (now La Antigua Guatemala).
Guatemala, of course, adds its own touches. Planning may begin as early as August when families get together to decide a biblical message for the nacimiento. As soon as the Burning of the Devil has passed (Dec. 7), nativity scenes are created in local homes (Catholic and non-Catholic) and churches.
Many of the objects may be purchased in the special Christmas markets set up throughout the country while some sculptures from the “misterio” (Virgin Mary, St. Joseph and the Baby Jesus) have been handed down from generation to generation for centuries. Many misterios are made out of carved cedar and gold leaf and feature the Virgin Mary and St. Joseph kneeling.
3rd PLACE by judges vote in the Revue Photo Contest: Traditions “El Nacimiento de La Abuelita” by Leslie Pappa.
“Nacimientos populares” also include indigenous figures, local flora like pie de gallos (bromeliads) and manzanillas. Works of art are created, as mountains, waterfalls and rivers emerge out of paper, died sawdust and moss. Many elaborate ceramic figures are made locally.
These include the Magi, camels, angels, shepherds, the ox and donkey and, sometimes, entire Guatemalan pueblos. These are great fun for the entire family to create and have become a true Guatemalan tradition throughout the country.
On Christmas Eve, the figure of the Baby Jesus is placed in the manger with prayers and the sound of the turtle shell being “played.” Special celebrations may also take place on New Year’s Eve. Devote followers of Nativity scene traditions leave them up until Feb. 2, which is Candlemas Day.