Today’s Christmas story: Antigua, Guatemala – Christmas 2005

In Winter 2004, I led a group from my church to the village high in the mountains of Guatemala, to spend a week alongside  Food for the Hungry Int (a great story for another day).  On my return flight (which, since I was the team organizer, had been paid for by the church), the airline offered me a voluntary “bump,” where I could give up my seat on that flight in exchange for free tickets within the coming year.  I used those tickets to travel to Costa Rica in Winter 2005 (also a  great story for yet another day: I know, I know, such a tease).  On my way home from Costa Rica, the airline offered me yet another voluntary “bump,” which gave me another set of free tickets for the coming year (gotta love free travel!)

My chosen destination for this serendipitous windfall?  Back to Guatemala, by way of Honduras, during my Christmas vacation in 2005 (there’s just nothing like having people ask you where you’re heading for Christmas Break, and being able to answer, “Oh, you know, Central America.”).   After missing my connecting flight in Atlanta (the country’s busiest airport on the busiest flight day of the year = four hour line waits), and after a relatively-uneventful weekend in a fairly uneventful city, I was finally on my way to the main event…

The bulk of my trip was spent touring the historic sites of Northern Honduras: a world-class set of Mayan ruins, some small juncture towns along the way, and a traditional Garifuna village.  My plans had been to spend Christmas Eve/Day in Guatemala City, near some big church I’d heard about in the marketplace part of town, but at the advice of several fellow travelers, I quickly changed my plans.  Antigua (the historic capital of Guatemala, until it was buried by a volcanic eruption) is a gorgeous, colonial-type town which houses several historic cathedrals, and maintains a festive environment year-round.  I could think of no better place to spend the most festive holiday of the year.

On Christmas Eve, after an all-day bus ride across Honduras, I arrived to the brightly-colored stucco buildings and crumbling ruins that are Antigua.  A typical Christmas Eve in Latin America is as follows: evening mass, the Noche Buena meal w/ family, then fireworks in the town square at midnight (when Jesus arrives!).  After locating a great hotel (see pics), I found Iglesia de La Merced across town and enjoyed the procession of the “gigantes” (or giant, paper-mache heads) into the church.  The procession also brought with it statues of Baby Jesus and the Virgin Mary: in this type of Catholic culture, statues are viewed as offering a direct link to God (poor explanation, but you get the point). 

At the conclusion of the procession, and before the Mass, with church bells ringing strong, fireworks were lit off over the church (see my pics, and  short video clip here).  A dazzling array of lights and colors signals the celebratory atmosphere with which the locals regard this special holiday.  Mass was humorous, in that (as much as I could follow along with my basic Spanish skills), I enjoyed seeing that churches in other cultures had crappy Christmas services, too (bad cassette tape music ,and kids in bathrobes and towels).  A great service, nonetheless…

For Noche Buena (“good evening”), I grabbed some street vendor tacos and went back to my hotel room, watched “Sportscenter”, and waiting for the main event.  As midnight drew near, I made my way to Parque Central, the main plaza at the center of town.  Surrounded by locals and fellow tourists, we watched and waited with mounting anticipation for the big moment.  Then, when finally the big church clock struck “12,” the show began.  Explosions! Lights!  Colors!   All around us, above us, behind us!  Big ones!  Not as big ones!  A few drunk tourists setting off bottle rockets into the crowd!  For a few minutes, alongside the Europeans and Americans and Canadians I had met, we all celebrated together as fellow Guatemalans for the night. 

Things gradually died down; most of the Europeans continued the celebrating at the local pub, I wandered the ruins for about another hour, then found my way back to my hotel.  The next morning, Christmas Day, before travelling into the city for a late-afternoon flight, I wandered the quiet, desolate streets of this rich, old city, taking in its beauty & charm while enjoying the rare privilege of having the place to myself.  I grabbed some pineapple from a street vendor.  I ventured to the roof of my hotel and took pictures of the surrounding volcanoes.  Oh, and it was about 80 degrees Fahrenheit on Christmas Day; not too bad. 

My return trip was relatively uneventful, except for the bus that dropped me off in the wrong part of town about an hour before my flight (with the promise of “many cabs on this street.”), the subsequent 30 min. waiting for a cab, the fastest cab ride I’ve ever had (prompted by a healthy advance gratuity), and the frustrations of dealing with American airport employees forced to work on Christmas Day.  When I got home, my family had its usual post-Christmas gathering.  But I had already had the pleasure of “doing Christmas” amidst the celebratory spirit of a culture that knows how to do it right when the occasion calls for it.