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Burn, Baby, Burn

By Diana Pastor

Finally, December has arrived! Now we can forget our problems from the year and celebrate.  This time of year also brings with it a special Guatemalan tradition: the burning of the devil. Since the 16th century or thereabouts, this celebration has been commemorated every December 7 and signals the real beginning of Christmas-time traditions in Guatemala (merchants’ attempts to begin celebrating in September notwithstanding).

The burning of the devil begins at 6 pm. Families and especially children make a bonfire to burn the devil (children+bonfire=a very safe tradition). Into the bonfire go old household items to symbolize the expulsion of evil; and the arrival of peace, good luck and harmony (the relationship between harmony and a less cluttered house is under study by the local university). Figuratively speaking, the devil serves as a manifestation of all things negative in one’s life, thus the specific meaning of this evil is different for everyone. Though undoubtedly many people in Xela can agree on the common evils of Las Cremas and bad roads.

Many years back people just used to burn wood to make a small bonfire. But like all good fire related traditions, things escalated over the years since bigger bonfires and more fun are synonyms. This (and the lack a waste management plan) led people to burn household items such as cardboard or paper. Election years, such as this one, create particularly large and colorful fires as old campaign posters are added to conflagration [Editor’s Note: XelaWho magazine strenuously denies any implied comparison between politicians and the devil].

However, in recent years, things have gotten a little out of hand as people had the bright idea to burn plastic containers, car tires, and other items that are a little less environmentally friendly. This created protests by burgeoning environmental activists (or at least people that don’t like stinky tires being burned outside their window). Their desire to eliminate the devil burning tradition has faced opposition from people that have expressed a desire to preserve their cultural traditions.

This devil of a problem has diminished the tradition in recent years though it still remains prominent in many places. A new (and slightly more environmentally friendly) take on this tradition is to burn the devil in effigy, using a piñata to represent the devil. This has created an unexpected boon for the local piñata industry [Editor’s note: see our guide to determining the quality of a paper devil on page 143 of this edition]. So if you come across more than the usual number fires in the street on December 7, don’t be alarmed; people aren’t burning this magazine (we hope), just ridding themselves of the devil and his negative vibes.

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