Are you wondering what Guatemalan Christmas traditions are like? Let me tell you that Christmas in Guatemala is full of holiday traditions and delicious food. From las posadas navideñas and Noche Buena to the smell of fresh pine and delicious tamales colorados accompanied by hot chocolate or ponche de frutas, the Guatemalan Christmas holidays are full of culture and tradition. The holiday season in Guatemala is a truly magical time of year. Whether you are from Guatemala living abroad, have family roots tracing back to Guatemala, or plan to visit Guatemala during the holiday season, you will find the most popular Guatemalan Christmas traditions here.
I have included my favorite Guatemalan Christmas traditions and some key elements and foods that make a Guatemalan Christmas unique. We try to recreate many of these Guatemalan holiday traditions at home here in the US. We love spending time as a family, from making tamales colorados, and ponche de frutas navideño to decorating the tree with handmade Guatemalan Christmas ornaments. However, we also love to fly back to Guatemala to celebrate Christmas with our family every couple of years. You can only experience some of these holiday traditions if you immerse yourself in the culture and celebrate Christmas in Guatemala.
La Quema del Diablo in Guatemala
For me, the holiday season kicks off in Guatemala with la Quema del Diablo (the burning of the devil). This strange tradition involves burning the devil, usually a piñata of the devil, in a bonfire in December. Most people will also ignite fireworks, many of which are typically thrown right into the bonfire. Along with the devil, people will usually burn rubbish, paper, and other old things lying around at home. It is because it’s believed that the devil could be lurking in places filled with old and unwanted items. Burning the devil and your trash is also thought to have a cleansing effect.
There has been a strong movement to stop this tradition in the last few years, especially in Guatemala City. It is because the hundreds of bonfires in the streets create so much smoke and pollution. In addition, this tradition results in multiple fires and hundreds of injuries due to the fireworks every year. If you’re interested in this unique Guatemalan holiday tradition, check out my article about how La Quema del Diablo is a Guatemalan dying tradition.
Las Posadas Navideñas
Las Posadas navideñas are one of my favorite. Guatemalan holiday traditions. They bring together families and neighborhoods, building community and bringing out what Christmas is all about. During the posadas, people (usually from the same area) get together every day from December 16th to the 24th. In city neighborhoods and small towns, small processions or andas walk the streets as soon as the night falls. Children and teenagers carry the images of Joseph and Mary on the anda. At the same time, the adults bring colored paper lanterns and sing the traditional canciones de posada.
One of the best things about las posadas is the singing. The songs of las posadas are similar to Christmas caroling as it is outside houses. The song is a reenactment of the ritualistic dialogue that took place when Joseph and Mary look for lodging to spend the night before Jesus’ birth. One of the things I love the most about the posadas is the food. Every night, once everyone has entered the home hosting the anda with the Mary & Joseph in it, the hosts offer lots of delicious traditional Guatemalan food. From tamales colorados and chuchitos to a steaminghot cup of ponche navideño or atol de elote, you can enjoy some of the best Guatemalan dishes.
Ponche de Frutas or Hot Fruit Punch
Although Guatemala is considered a country with a temperate to warm climate, Guatemala is also a very mountainous country. Therefore, many cities and towns in Guatemala, including Guatemala City, are located at a high altitude. It means that temperatures get colder starting in November and through December and January.
One of my favorite things about the arrival of the cold weather and the holiday season is drinking ponche de frutas or hot fruit punch. Of course, the recipe for Guatemalan ponche de frutas can vary from household to household. Still, in general, it usually includes fresh and dried fruit like apples, pineapple, raisins, prunes, and sometimes papaya and other tropical fruits. Cooked with cinnamon and sugar, this hot fruit punch is one of those Christmas traditions I look forward to every year.
The smell of fresh pine and manzanilla
Traditional Christmas decorations in Guatemala are, for the most part, natural. People decorate their homes with fresh pine needles on the floor, garlands made of manzanilla, poinsettias, and gallitos. Even the nativity scenes are created and decorated with natural elements like moss, Spanish moss and “gallitos” (air plants or tillandsias), and even orchids. It gives Christmas traditions in Guatemala not only a distinct personality but also a unique Guatemalan Christmas smell.
It’s incredible how you tie smells to specific memories and times of the year. Christmas in the US smells so different from Christmas in Guatemala growing up. I miss that smell of freshly cut pine moss and manzanilla. And when I visit Guatemala around the holidays, I always make a point to visit a Guatemalan Christmas market. In Guatemalan Christmas markets, you can find everything to decorate with natural elements and everything you need to create your nativity scene.
Making the Nacimiento: Guatemala’s Amazing Nativity Scenes
In Guatemala, creating a nativity scene is an art in itself. Families usually get together to create entire villages and country scenes around the nativity scene. The creation of the nativity scene usually starts with a trip to the local Christmas market where people buy colored sawdust to create the nativity scenes along with moss, gallitos (air plants), and manzanilla garlands with fresh pine and cypress leaves.
Mary and Joseph, along with the three wise men or Los tres Reyes Magos and the manger, are often handmade figurines made of clay. Some nativity scenes show Mary and Joseph dressed in traditional Mayan clothing.
Nochebuena or Christmas Eve
In Guatemala, the most important celebration happens on Christmas eve. That is not only when families get together and enjoy a traditional Christmas dinner which usually includes Guatemalan tamales and ponche navideño, but you open the presents at midnight on Christmas eve.
Christmas Eve celebrations usually include large groups of people coming together, including extended family members and friends. After the Christmas Eve dinner, which generally comprises Guatemalan tamales, families set off fireworks and light firecrackers. The night ends with everyone gathering around the tree to open presents.
Fireworks at midnight
In Guatemala, it is customary to light fireworks at the stroke of midnight on Christmas Eve. After Christmas Eve dinner, people wait until precisely 12 am to light fireworks and firecrackers to celebrate the birth of Jesus. In small towns, very loud firecrackers known as bombas (firecracker bombs) are also set off at the churches.
Growing up in Guatemala, lighting fireworks at midnight was one of my favorite Guatemalan Christmas traditions. My family would gather outside on the street, and as the clock stroke midnight, the entire city would explode in a deafening chorus as thousands of firecrackers went off simultaneously. Bright colored fireworks would light up the sky as smoke filled the air. Smaller kids would light up sparklers or estrellitas. My favorite ones were the fountains or volcancitos.
When it comes to traditional Christmas foods in Guatemalan tamales, especially Guatemalan tamales colorados, are the most popular traditional dish. You enjoy a full plate on Nochebuena or Christmas eve dinner, Christmas day lunch, or brunch. Other Guatemalan tamales like paches (potato tamales) chuchitos and sweet tamales negros are also popular during the holiday season.
For me, it’s not Christmas without tamales colorados! And now that I live in the USA, although we have turkey or ham on Christmas eve with my husband’s family, we always have tamales colorados on Christmas day for lunch or brunch. They are amazing with a squeeze of fresh lime and accompanied by pan Frances or country-style bread.
Opening the presents on Christmas Eve
In Guatemala, you open your Christmas presents after midnight on Christmas eve. Then, after Nochebuena (or Christmas eve) dinner and after lighting firecrackers and fireworks at midnight, families come together to open presents. Finally, gifts are placed under the tree; however, Christmas trees are usually smaller in Guatemala than in American households.
Waking up late on Christmas Day
As a kid, I loved staying up late on Christmas Eve, playing with my new toys. In Guatemala, most people sleep in on Christmas day and wake up just before noon to light more firecrackers when the clock strikes 12. As a kid, I would only get a couple of hours of sleep and then wake up relatively early on Christmas day to enjoy all the presents I had received the night before. A few minutes before noon, we would run out to the sidewalk and light up firecrackers in our Pjs before returning to have brunch, usually consisting of leftover turkey or ham and tamales.
Ont the afternoon of December 25th, we would usually meet up with friends or extended family we had not seen during Christmas eve. As a kid, we had dinner on Christmas eve with my grandparents. Then on Christmas day, we would see my uncles and aunts and have close family friends visit and exchange presents. So even though we opened our main presents at midnight on Christmas eve, we continued to get gifts from different people we visited or visited us during Christmas Day. As a teenager, I would get together with my friends late on the afternoon of the 25th and exchange presents and then catch a movie.
Dia de Reyes
Dia de Los Reyes (Three Kings Day) or Epiphany is celebrated on January 6th. On January 5th, kids put their shoes next to the tree or near the nativity scene to let The Magi know where to leave presents. Then, on January 6th, they wake up early to open the gifts brought by the Three Kings, just like a second Christmas morning. Then, the families get together for a brunch or afternoon snack (merienda) to eat the traditional Rosca de Reyes. You can make an easy and quick version at home with this recipe for Rosca de Reyes buns.
I love sharing El Dia de Reyes traditions with my kids. For example, on January 6th, we usually spend the day doing Three Kings Day crafts and activities after the kids open the presents in the morning. With these free printable Dia de Reyes bilingual coloring pages, you can also help your kids learn more about this Guatemalan holiday.
Christmas is my favorite time of the year, filled with joy and holiday spirit. And reminiscing all the wonderful Christmas traditions in Guatemala with my kids is my way of keeping the memories alive. From singing traditional Christmas songs to eating all the good things like tamales and ponche, the Christmas season in Guatemala is rich with longstanding traditions and family gatherings. I hope you enjoy reading all my favorite holiday traditions and would love to hear how you celebrate this magical time.