Hola todos, y feliz Navidad!
I can’t believe that Christmas has already passed and that I have already been in Guatemala for just over 4 months. My, how time is flying! Things have been going really well here, and aside from perhaps enjoying the food a bit too much, I couldn’t be happier. This December was significant in a number of ways: it was the first Christmas I spent away from my family, but also the first Christmas I spent in a foreign country; although I missed my family back home, I feel blessed to have been able to experience some Guatemalan traditions and to have shared in Christmas celebrations with my Guatemalan family here! Also, believe it or not Chrismtas music has been playing since about the beginning of the month, there are Christmas trees set up in various places around Xela, and I’ve even seen a few Santa Clauses meandering around. I don’t know whether to be happy or sad about that, since US culture seems to be permeating so many places around the globe, but I have to admit that it did do my soul some good to get glimpses of some of my own Christmas traditions here in Guate 🙂
Celebrating Christmas with my Guatemalan family was something that I’ll never forget. First of all, at my church here they take Chrismtas celebrations VERY seriously! At the church there is a tradition of dividing the congregation into 2 groups and having each group come up with a 30 – 45 minute participation event for the Christmas Eve service. Even before the start of Advent, the groups had started meeting – in secret of course, because the other group CAN’T know what’s going on! This year, the group that I was in decided to do something that they had never done before: do the whole participation for the service in K’iche’. Sadly, Mayan languages around Guatemala are slowly dying out, and the people in my group wanted to use the Christmas Eve participation not only to celebrate the birth of our Savior but also celebrate their language and culture in the process. We decided to do a rendering of the Nativity story and sing three Christmas carols in K’iche’, also wearing the traje típico (traditional dress) of our region of Cantel.
Even though it was an ambitious plan, everyone excitedly hopped on board. We even decided to sing two of the Christmas songs with marimba background music, which is the national instrument of Guatemala. I never in my life imagined that I would sing ‘The Little Drummer Boy’ in K’iche’ with a marimba soundtrack (let alone ‘White Christmas’ or ‘Silent Night,’ for that matter), but it was one of the most beautiful and joyful Christmas experiences of my life. Our choir was far from professional – consistently off beat and out of tune, even to the night of the performance – but joining in song with my brothers and sisters in celebration of their rich culture and the good news of the incarnation was absolutely incredible. Probably the thing that I love most about my church here is that people just belt out the songs with all the gusto they can muster. It doesn’t matter if they sing in tune or on beat, because they are singing for God. They just sing from their hearts, and it is a beautiful thing. So, as we were singing on stage, I just got a goofy grin across my face from the joy of it all, celebrating the best news that we could ever receive: that our Lord came down to us. Wearing the traje típico and speaking in K’iche’ was also a profound reminder of what the incarnation really means; Jesus met us (and meets us) exactly where we are. He ‘pitched his tent’ among us and just came to live as we do, out of his great love for the entire world. THAT is a pretty incredible gift!
On Christmas day I wore my traje again and celebrated with the family. There was no gift exchange – just the gift of one another’s company. We ate a big lunch together, complete with meat from a pig that had been slaughtered the day before, and then enjoyed some cake and hot chocolate later in the day. The floor of the room where we ate was covered in pine needles, which made it smell divine! The little ones were playing and laughing, and we all shared a lot of laughs together. I also shared some tears, but mostly tears of joy, as I tried to tell the family how grateful I was for their love and care for me, how grateful my family is back home knowing that I’m in good hands here, and how much of a blessing it is to be in their family. It was an incredible Christmas, and I was just sad that my loved ones back home couldn’t share in that experience with me. However, I know that the lasting gifts of Christmas are also the bonds that last over miles and years – faith, hope, love, joy, peace – and those can never be taken away.
Another very significant thing that happened this December was the Trece Bak’tun, the end of the 12th cycle of the Mayan calendar and the start of the new era on Dec. 21, 2012. Since these cycles only come around every 5,200 something years, it was pretty awesome to experience it in Guatemala! In the afternoon I went into Xela’s Parque Central and met up with another volunteer to see the activities. Stages were set up all over, and different groups were speaking, playing marimba, dancing, and practicing religious ceremonies. There were also vendors everywhere, selling food and different goods. One of my favorite parts was hearing what people had to say about the ceremonies and the meaning of the bak’tun. In a ceremony that I saw later in the evening, the priest was talking about how the bak’tun is the beginning of a new era of hope for the world. He talked about how we should hope and pray for a world with less violence, less hunger, less sickness; a world where children don’t work on the streets, where people aren’t shot, where people don’t starve, where we don’t pollute our earth. He talked about a world in which we care for one another and for our earth, which is our home. It was all very beautiful to hear, and very true. Instead of being a day of destruction as so many had feared, the bak’tun really was a day of hope and renewal for the future. After saying these things, the priest invited us all to lift up our eyes to the heavens and pray to the Creator God. While I was doing this, looking at the stars among the Christmas lights in Parque Central and the firelight of the ceremony, two Mayan elders raised conch shells to the sky and blew through them. Standing there praying, listening to the conches and looking at the stars was also an incredible moment that I will never forget. There was a sense of unity amongst all those standing in the circle, and I felt that this kind of unity is what God longs for for all of his people.
The bak’tun also marked my reunion with my InnerCHANGE friends, which was another incredibly rich blessing. It was wonderful to share with them about how my time has been here so far, and it was great to hear about how they have all been as well. I felt a bit of a homecoming, but in sharing some of the things that have happened to me so far and the ways that God has been so clearly present in Pachaj, I was also reminded that I have another wonderful home in Guatemala. Right now I feel as though I am exactly where God intends for me to be, and it was so neat to be reminded of that.
As the new year is fast-approaching, I pray that we can enter into it with a sense of hope and renewal. I pray that we all work towards a world filled with more hope, peace, love, joy, health and well-being; in short, a world that is a brighter reflection of God’s kingdom. May you feel God’s blessings in this Christmas season and throughout the New Year! Or, as the song goes, ¡Feliz Navidad, Próspero Año y Felicidad!
Wishing you much love and joy from Guatemala,