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Mayan Birthdays

by Susanna Raymundo

In many Mayan communities it is normal not to celebrate birthdays – this day is passed like any other day. The most important celebrations of life in the Mayan culture are the first 40 days of life. Leading up to the birth, everybody excitedly awaits the arrival of the baby without knowing its gender. Once the baby has been born, animals – especially chickens – are slaughtered. During these 40 days the mother and baby receive special care from the whole community. The Maya perform a number of ceremonies to keep them from being cursed or getting sick from fear or the evil eye.

One important date that is always accompanied by a grand celebration in Guatemala is the first birthday. Often the largest hall in town will be rented for the occasion and the children who are invited are given a bag of candy (called sorpresas) and invited to break piñatas and share the moment with the other children from the village or town.

The 15th birthday is the next important one, especially for girls. They buy a special dress for the occasion, rent a ballroom and are given a special ring that denotes that they have turned 15. Children representing each age from 1 year to 14 years are invited as a representation of the ages the girl has passed. The birthday girl (quinceañera) begins by dancing a waltz with her father and then with the chambelán (her chaperone, more or less). One of the most important gifts given to the quinceañera is the last doll of her childhood. Some families also celebrate the 15th birthday of a male child, but the celebration is rarely so grand.

Some birthdays have common traditions, regardless of the year being celebrated: friends and family visit the house of the person whose birthday it is early in the morning, awaken them with fireworks and play loud music to wake up the whole neighborhood so that they know that a birthday is being celebrated. One thing to watch for – when you are celebrating your birthday you will be invited to take a bite directly from the cake. When you do, someone will push your head from behind, burying your face in the cake. Don’t take offense at this harmless prank. It is a time-honored tradition in the Guatemalan birthday celebration.

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