by Genesis Davies for Remitly

Christmas in Guatemala is a time for family, festivities, and unique traditions that blend Mayan sensibilities with Catholic heritage. From Guatemala City to the jungles of the Peten or the highlands of Quetzaltenango, la Navidad is celebrated wholeheartedly by the people of this Central American nation.

Whether you’re moving to Guatemala, have immigrated away and miss home, or just want to know more, we’ve got you covered in this guide.

Decorating for Guatemalan Christmas: Nativity Scenes

Snow is quite rare in Guatemala, but that doesn’t mean that Guatemalans don’t enjoy decorating like it’s winter. In fact, you’ll frequently find faux Christmas trees in shops and malls with faux snow on the branches for decoration.

However, Christmas trees aren’t traditional in Guatemala, despite the pine forests in its mountain highlands. Instead, you’ll find that most homes put their time and energy into creating “nacimientos,” or nativity scenes.

Nacimientos feature the traditional nativity scene with Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus, as well as shepherds, angels, and wise men, all figures that are carefully stored each year. Families take great pride in creating beautiful scenes for visitors to enjoy.

These Christmas decorations are usually huge, with the smallest about the size of a four-person dining table. Some can take up an entire garage and are complete with rolling hills and fountains trickling water.

There is a tradition in some areas of Guatemala where a visitor will attempt to steal the infant Jesus. If they manage to leave the house with the figure, the family must hold a party to ransom the figure back. It’s all done for fun, of course.

Noche Buena: A Fiery Christmas Eve

Guatemalans celebrate Christmas at midnight on December 24th. Leading up to this hour, they may clean their homes, entertain guests, or attend Mass at their local church. By midnight, however, nearly everyone is home and ready to celebrate.

At the stroke of midnight, people begin to set off their fireworks, “bombas,” and firecrackers to ring in the holiday. Intense noise and smoke fill the streets in every Guatemalan town for at least 10 minutes, if not longer.

Once the hubbub has quieted down, everyone gives Christmas hugs and kisses to their friends and families and wishes them a “Feliz Navidad.”

Guatemalan Holiday Food and Gifts

On Noche Buena, even though it’s midnight, children are usually still awake and excited about their gifts. This is when families exchange presents—usually only for the little ones in the family. The gifts are not extravagant, perhaps a doll or a toy car and a set of new clothes to wear the next day.

Certain Guatemalan foods are considered essential at Christmas. Mothers serve up the tamales they’ve spent the past two days cooking, along with hot chocolate or ponche, a hot fruit drink.

People in small towns will frequently drift between houses until around dawn, sitting down for a tamale and chatting at each house. It’s very much a social affair and a good time to check in on your family and friends.

Christmas is a time when many families put together what they can to celebrate.

Often, family members in other countries, such as Canada and the U.S., will send money to help make Christmas easier to celebrate. No matter the circumstances, it doesn’t take a lot to enjoy a beautiful time of year when you’re with your family.

Hugs and a cup of ponche are all that many Guatemalans need to have the perfect Christmas.

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