How To Celebrate Christmas in Guatemala and the Meaning of Christmas

By Brendan Scott

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, his mom Susan, 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 what Skyy (one of my student’s whose house I lived at) spent.  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.


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6 responses to “How To Celebrate Christmas in Guatemala and the Meaning of Christmas

  1. John Moyer

    Thanks Brendan!
    I am learning the Spanish language, began at age 66 when I began mentoring a Mexican youth, now 4 years later is in 8th grade, Littleton Public Schools.
    I will search for Izzy Saves Christmas, read it in Spanish, thanks for the tip.
    Sergio, my mentee, likes to send his abuelitas chocolate, the kind he found in Costco, made by Ghiradelli. I buy them for him. His mom sends them to Chihuahua via some mysterious transport system.
    Yesterday our church provided gifts and “presence” for 5 families in our neighborhood. With the help of the Dakotah Ridge HS faculty, identified 5 families with specific needs that probably were not going to met. I drove to a lady’s house and presenteded her with gifts and foot for the family. She was overwhelmed, teared up with joy. I could see she needed to tuck her pride away and just accept the gifts, NO STRINGS ATTACHED. She is recently divorced, new to Colorado, may be evicted from her lodgings, newly diagnosed with breast malignancy, three children. Happily she has a second job interview this Tuesday; she really needs the income to survive.
    I am so happy I go to TNC, so relational, so giving to our community.

    • You are right providing presence for five families was pretty awesome. Sadly you wont be able to find Izzy Saves Christmas in Spanish. I am not sure how the school found it in the first place, but it’s an English speaking play.

  2. Georgie-ann

    I love our Christmas fellowship with the Spanish community of our Church,…so many children, so many families, so much faith!,…lots of twinkly eyes & not so much “conspicuous consumption!” Pleasant chaos, but no one ever gets hurt!

    The shared hot chocolate & warming tamales overflow,…& in the midst of “poverty” (that no one notices), we feel richly blessed,…and very happy, inside and out!

    Bring out the guitars and singing, and I’m “in heaven” already!

  3. Brendan:

    I laughed at remembering the Christ Candle Incidents. Gladly we were never the perfect family some may have expected.

    Thanks for the picture of your Christmases in Xela. I can see why you call it home and why you miss it–and your friends and students so.

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