The Posadas Navideñas: Christmas Traditions in Guatemala

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The posadas are one of the most important Christmas traditions in Guatemala. Christmas in Guatemala is such a special time of the year filled with delicious food, traditional Christmas songs and  different holidays  and customs.  The Christmas holidays in Guatemala usually kick off with la Quema del Diablo on December 7th, followed by the posadas navideñas and culminating with the Dia de los Reyes Magos in January. 

Fotografía por Rudy A. Girón via Flickr

Guatemalan traditions, in general,  are a fusion of elements and beliefs of Arab, Spanish, and Mayan origin. According to the famous Guatemalan historian Celso Lara, Guatemalan Christmas traditions are some of the most beautiful in Latin America. And the posadas navideñas are an essential part of those holiday Guatemalan traditions. Las posadas are also one of my favorite Guatemalan traditions as they bring together families and neighborhoods to celebrate the arrival of Jesus with songs and delicious food.

The Posadas in Guatemala: a beautiful Christmas tradition

In Guatemala, the December celebrations start off with the traditional Quema del Diablo (The Burning of the Devil) on December 7th.  It is a longstanding tradition to sanctify and purify the way before celebrating the Day of the Virgen de Concepcion on the 8th.

The traditional Christmas posadas take place all over Guatemala 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.

Fotografía por Kenneth Cruz via Flickr

What is a Posada Navideña?

The posadas are small processions that symbolize the journey of Mary and Joseph from Nazareth to Jerusalem and their search for a place to spend the night. This Christian tradition originated in Spain, called Jornadillas, and is now part of many Latin American countries’ holiday celebrations. 

Singing and prayers are shared to the rhythm of the Tu-cu-tí-cu-to of the ayotl (a pre-Columbian percussion device made of a turtle’s shell taped on the convex side with a piece of wood). Other Guatemalan autochthonous instruments, including whistles and chinchines (aboriginal maracas made from the fruit of the morro tree), fill the night air with music.

Fotografía por Roberto Urea via Flickr

During las Posadas every day has a different element surrounding the Nativity:

  • The 16th is dedicated to the Mount of the Drum
  • On the 17th  to the City of Nain.
  • On the 18th  to the Fields of Samira
  • On the 19th  to the Well of Sequen
  • On the 20th  to the Corral of the Sheep
  • On the 21st  to the Glasses of Snow
  • On the 23rd to the Entrance of Bethlehem
  • On the 24th to the Portal of Bethlehem

What are the typical things done at a Posada?

The posadas navideñas occur during the nine days before Noche Buena (Christmas Eve), symbolizing the nine months of the Virgin Mary’s pregnancy. The first posada leaves the parish temple and makes its way to a home chosen in advance. 

Every night the group visits three houses. The group splits in half; some enter the house, while the others stay outside with the anda (Joseph and Mary’s float). The ones inside play the role of host, and the others outside represent the pilgrims. They sing a ritualistic dialogue called canto de posada and ask for lodging for the night.

Fotografía de Rudy A. Girón via Flickr

In the first two houses visited, the host denies entrance so that the group can continue to the next house. Finally, the last home opens the doors and welcomes everybody in. They set the float (anda) down in a place of honor or an altar, generally close to the Nativity scene. 

It is decorated with colored sawdust, moss, pacaya leaves, and stringed manzanilla (known as tejocotl in Mexico) garlands. Usually, the host serves traditional Guatemalan food while kids have a blast with popular fireworks like estrellitas and saltapericos!

What food is served at a traditional Guatemalan Posada?

Every night the host receives the travelers with tamales, chuchitos, hot fruit punch, agua de horchata, barquillos, and other traditional Guatemalan dishes. The anda with Joseph and Mary remains in the house until the next night, when the pilgrimage begins again. 

Guatemalan Christmas dinner with tamales

On December 24th,  the travelers remain in the last of the nine houses. There, the baby Jesus is added to the Nativity scene. Then, families gather around for the traditional Cena de Noche Buena (Christmas Eve dinner), filled with laughter, great food, and a jolly festive spirit.

Traditional Guatemalan Food to Enjoy During Christmas: 

  • Tamales Colorados: Made with corn masa and a chicken or pork filling wrapped in fresh banana leaves, this Guatemalan food is based on my grandmother’s recipe. I have come up with the best recipe for Guatemalan tamales with some personal tweaks, including easy step-by-step instructions.
  • Tamales Negros (Sweet Tamales): Guatemalan Tamales Negros are a special dish often made for celebrations. Known for their dark color from chocolate in the sauce, these tamales mix sweet and savory flavors. They are filled with meat like chicken or pork and sweetened with raisins, almonds, and prunes. Wrapped in banana leaves, they are a favorite treat during holidays in Guatemala.
  • Chuchitos Guatemaltecos: Learn how to make these delicious traditional tamales at home! A smaller type of Guatemalan tamal is filled with pork or chicken and a tomato-based recado or sauce and wrapped in corn husks.

Guatemalan Christmas foods

  • Jocotes en Miel: A traditional Guatemalan food commonly served around the Day of the Dead celebrations. These juicy jocotes (hog plums) are cooked in a bubbling sweet syrup and heavenly spices.
  • Guatemalan Ponche Navideño: A hot drink traditionally served during the holiday season. It is made with different fruits such as pineapples, plums, apples, and many more. 

Guatemalan ponche de fruitas Christmas fruit punch

  • Champurradas: A super easy recipe that will surely be a total success with everyone in the family! A scrumptious giant cookie with the perfect level of crunch to dunk in your morning coffee!
  •  Atol de Elote: Corn atole is a hot drink of fresh corn. This traditional drink has its origin in the Mayan culture, perfect for cold weather, posadas, and Christmas time.

The posadas navideñas in Guatemala are a beautiful holiday tradition that I loved as a kid (and still do). Not only was I allowed to play with age-appropriate fireworks, but the food was amazing! And while eating is a huge part of any tradition, the singing part was the best. The Guatemalan cantos de posada (along with the smell of tamales) filled my nana’s home with the best Christmas spirit ever. So tell me, how do you celebrate Christmas? Let me know in the comment section below!

¡Feliz Navidad!

Paula Bendfeldt-Diaz

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2 thoughts on “The Posadas Navideñas: Christmas Traditions in Guatemala”

  1. gracias por esta informacion tan importante.
    Me sirvio como base para exponer como se celebra la navidad en nuestro pais.
    yo trabajo en una excuela primaria con ninos bilingues.
    Gracias por su gran aportacion de nuestras costumbres. Tambien soy una amante aventurera pero no escritora como tu. Mil gracias.


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