Navidad in Guatemala: Christmas Sightings and Celebrations

This is our first Christmas abroad and it’s been a neat experience to take in the sightings and celebrations leading up to Navidad in Guatemala. As Guatemala is a Central-American country with predominately Catholic beliefs, there are no shortage of festive-ness and festivities to be observed and even participate in!

Leading Up to Navidad (Late November/December):

Fuentes Georginas – Zunil, Guatemala
Parque a Centro America – Quetzaltenango (Xela), Guatemala
SISAY Spanish School – Xela, Guatemala – Navidad party for the students our Spanish school tuition supports (November 25th) – It felt good to volunteer for the school on the day after Thanksgiving for us, absent of the public encouragement in the U.S. to shop
Centro Comercial Montblanc – Xela, Guatemala – I browsed but didn’t purchase anything (except in the grocery store that connects to this shopping center) – I was memorized by the pretty hanging lights!
Burning of the Devil/Feast of Virgen de Concepción (December 7th) – Salcaja, Guatemala
I got smothered by a devil – We were warned ahead of time that this could happen, so we planned accordingly and bought some cheap clothing for this purpose. Aaron came out clean, no paint (unless perhaps some of mine smeared off onto him).
SISAY Spanish School – Xela, Guatemala – Dancing to a reggaeton song together in front of our fellow students and teachers at our Spanish school for our Navidad party (December 9th) – This was our “punishment” for not dressing festive enough 🙂
Feast of Virgen de Guadalupe (December 12th) – Parque a Centro America – Xela, Guatemala – If you look closely, there are Nativity displays throughout the park. Families pay for their children to take holiday photos in them, sort of like how in the U.S., kids get their photos taken with Santa. Apparently there is also a competition for the best Nativity display.
Random street – Xela, Guatemala
Festive gel clings I bought to decorate our apartment – Xela, Guatemala
Gimnasio Shaddai – Xela, Guatemala
Iglesia de San Pedro – San Pedro, Lago de Atitlan, Guatemala
Decorations and roasting chickens at Rincon Tipico – Antigua, Guatemala
Nativity display made of chocolate – Choco Museo – Antigua, Guatemala

For awhile, and actually, up until knowing how long we were going to actually spend in Lago de Atitlan (Lake Atitlan) once we were there versus what we had originally projected (which was, as usual, way less time), we didn’t know where we were going to be spending the Christmas holiday. In fact, it wasn’t until just days beforehand! We chose to stay in Antigua because it’s more touristed (meaning “easier” travel, lots of delicious and a wider range of dining options, and more accommodation choices still available), it’s walkable (well, more so than most other places we’ve been lately, though still a challenge on the uneven cobblestone for my healing ankle I sprained in San Pedro recently), and we were looking to stay with a family through AirBnB (hopefully to experience some authentic traditions and cultural exchange). We’ve been fortunate to experience all of these things!

Noche Buena (Christmas Eve):

Iglesia La Merced – Antigua, Guatemala
Nativity Display – Iglesia La Merced
The lovely ambiance we enjoyed for our Christmas Eve dinner at El Refectorio del Prior (within Casa Santo Domingo Hotel) – We splurged a bit for a nice evening to celebrate the holiday together and reminisced about our travel adventures thus far
Aaron’s main – Turkey, asparagus, and scalloped potatoes
My main – Steak with pureed broccoli and cauliflower, fried sushi rice cake, fava beans, mushrooms, and onions
More ambiance at the restaurant and hotel
Parque Central
Parque Central
Outside of Iglesia La Merced
Iglesia La Merced – This was one of two churches we visited on Christmas Eve and they were both PACKED (standing room only)! After the services wrap up (around 10:30 p.m. at this church), families head home to spend time together awaiting midnight, where they gather for an elaborate, home-cooked meal they’ve been preparing for days in advance and exchange modest gifts with one another. We think it’s quite lovely!
Nativity display outside in our host family’s compound
At the stroke of midnight, the entire city of Antigua erupted in fireworks! This is not a professional show; everything was set off from rooftops, backyards, and the street. It looked like this in every direction, 360 degrees around us, from the third story outdoor patio of our AirBnB host family’s home. Absolutely spectacular! We’d both never seen anything like it! We’d been told that the entire country of Guatemala does this to celebrate the birth of Christ.

Xmas in Guatemala – Video clip of our midnight fireworks experience!

Navidad (Christmas Day):

We woke up on Christmas morning, ready to pour our Cheerios® and milk into bowls, when our host family intercepted us and offered us the traditional food and drink they had prepared for themselves to enjoy with their family the night before for their midnight meal. What a pleasant, unexpected, tasty surprise for us! Certainly the best Christmas gift we could have received this year!

Tamales – It took our host family a full day just to prepare the masa, a corn-based flour and central ingredient.
Hot chocolate
Sweet bread
Ponche, a traditional punch, served hot or cold, with boiled fruit. We had the pleasure of smelling its sweetness being prepared in the kitchen on Christmas Eve during the day.

We hung out at the family compound in our comfortable room for most of the day, contacting our families and laying in bed to relax after our filling breakfast we indulged in. We fit in a workout with resistance bands and cardio drills on the outdoor patio on the 3rd floor, the same spot we experienced the fireworks in all directions the night before and returned to for more at noon on Christmas Day, with lovely views of the mountains out in front of us. It made us feel a bit better about all the food we were eating (we weren’t finished just yet… we still had the dinner reservation we had made at Earth Lodge to look forward to)!

View from our self-made, outdoor workout space

Our dear friends, Trish and Ryan Litke, recommended the Earth Lodge to us as a family-style dining experience with home-cooked food not to miss just above Antigua. I was excited to see they had a special Christmas dinner offering and reserved our spots once we knew we would be in Antigua for the holiday; it seemed like the perfect event to experience this venue! Aaron trimmed his bigote y barba (mustache and beard), I put on makeup for the first time in over a month, and we were ready!

Our view during our shuttle ride up to the Earth Lodge
Christmas dinner: Honey baked ham with homemade applesauce, scalloped potatoes, garbanzo and tomato salad, Caesar salad, garlic beer bread, green beans and snap peas, and blackberry cheesecake for dessert! And everyone could help themselves to seconds. All for only Q130 (less than $20 USD) per person!
I enjoyed a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon with my dinner 😉
Aaron with the Guatemalan flag at the dinner table

We met a couple of really nice travelers that we chatted with throughout the evening at our table — an older gentleman from England who has been coming to Antigua for Christmas for the past few years and lives in San Jose, a town of Lake Atitlan, for 2-3 months out of the year; and another guy, originally from Canada, who had retired young (at age 31, we think because of a Silicon Valley company cash-out opportunity) and is on a world-wide travel adventure indefinitely. We shared travel stories and recommendations, them having been to places in Guatemala that we are headed to soon and us having been places in Guatemala and Mexico that they were curious about, and related about our experiences learning Spanish. We were relieved to not have to sit with the loud, annoying, late-teens/early-20’s backpackers, whom we had to wait 15 minutes for at their hostel when the shuttle arrived to pick them up and they apparently weren’t ready. Another moment in our travels where we thought, we’re too old for that crowd! 😀

We had reserved the 8:30 p.m. return shuttle back to town, and we quickly realized upon arriving at the loading platform that it was full, and our “shuttle” now consisted of standing in the back of a pickup truck filled with other diners! On the bright side, the driver was carefully slow driving downhill, the cool air actually felt nice, a Costa Rican guy riding with us was quite entertaining for the group we had this shared experience with, and I can now say I’ve done this (which is pretty normal in Guatemala, though I certainly wouldn’t have sought it out on my own)! It was still Q20 per person, which I think is too much considering we were signed up for the shuttle, but hey, it’s Guatemala, and this is how life goes on the road with unexpected changes, so it doesn’t surprise me! 😉 I think I was more bothered because I have a sprained ankle that’s on the mend and balancing on the back of a moving pickup truck probably wasn’t the best for it, especially not after heading back up the unpaved, unlit, uneven path to the transportation loading area in the dark, which we were not anticipating. But, I suppose it’s all a part of the adventure and now it’s a story to tell!

Sumidero Canyon – Chipas, Mexico (our one Christmas-festive photo for the holidays outside of Guatemala) – Do you see the Christmas tree? 🙂

Overall, spending the whole month of December in Guatemala, we were exposed to so many cultural traditions surrounding Christmas that we never would have known about had we not come here to experience it ourselves! We learned the most during our time at SISAY Spanish School in Xela, where outside of our one-on-one language instruction from our teachers, the instructors presented two informational lectures about Guatemala per week and had cultural exposure opportunities available pretty much every afternoon.

Although of course we missed out on time with our families in-person at home this Christmas, we are fortunate to live in today’s world where technology makes it possible to connect instantaneously through voice and video chat, email, and social media with a solid WIFI connection (which thankfully, we have right now where we are staying). We decided to make the most of our time here for the holiday, knowing that it will likely be the only Christmas holiday we’ll spend away from family and acknowledging how unique of an environment and experience it really is! One of our greatest takeaways is how nice it was to escape the consumerism that bombards us in the U.S. from the day after Thanksgiving through after Christmas. Here the focus is truly on spending time with family and celebrating the birth of Christ, in the absence of retail, which is simple and lovely. I am sure our experiences here will help shape how we approach and celebrate Christmas moving forward when we return home.

We’ve decided to extend our stay in Antigua through the New Year. We’re told the fireworks aren’t even close to what they were on Christmas Eve, but we’re willing to bet they are still pretty wild and spectacular!

Feliz Navidad & Prospero Año! Merry Christmas & Happy New Year!

Until next time,
Elena & Aaron 🙂