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Burning the devil



Every December 7 at 6:00 p.m. sharp, Guatemalans “burn the devil,” building bonfires outside their homes to mark the occasion. The tradition has special significance in Guatemala City because of its association with the Feast of the Immaculate Conception which honors the city’s patron saint.

The origins of la quema del diablo can be traced to colonial times when it was commonplace for people to light lanterns or, for those with lesser means, bonfires outside their homes to celebrate special occasions. At the Santo Domingo monastery in Antigua, it became an annual tradition to burn a figure of the devil and light firecrackers on the Day of the Rosary in late October. As local priests began to put more emphasis on the Virgin’s triumph over evil, the celebration was pushed back to December to coincide with the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.

Many believed that the devil lurked in the home, crouching behind furniture, tucked under the bed, or concealed in piles of rubbish. To cleanse their homes of evil on the night before the feast, Guatemalans would sweep out their homes and burn their trash on the eve of the feast.

In Zone 1, the historic center of Guatemala City, vendors walk the streets selling devil horns, piñatas in the traditional horns-and-tail form of the devil and firecrackers as crowds (many of whom are dressed as devils themselves) make their way along Sexta Avenida, stopping on side streets to add scraps of paper to bonfires as they pass. Many continue on to Central Park, with its baroque cathedral and National Palace, to watch fireworks explode in the night sky.

I post this about 90 minutes after the event. The sounds of fireworks have abated but the smell of burned gunpowder and paper still floats through my open window. And in all probability, the devil still lurks about, unscathed.

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