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Honoring the departed in Guatemala: El Día de los Difuntos

The Day of the Dead is one of the most famous festivals in Mexico but did you know that Guatemala has its own version of this celebration? Here it is called El Día de los Difuntos, or El Día de los Fieles Difuntos: the Day of the Faithful Departed.

"Dia de muertos" in Guatemala

El Diá de los Difuntos actually forms part of the Christian festival of Hallowmas. In English-speaking countries, we tend to observe only the first of the three days of Hallowmas: All Hallows’ Eve, better known as Halloween, which falls on October 31. In Latin America, however, the second and third days are the important ones. November 1 is All Saint’s Day, or

El Día de Todos los Santos, when the faithful honor all Christian saints and martyrs. Then, on November 2, it’s El Día de Todos los Difuntos, also called All Souls’ Day in English. This is when people honor all those who have shuffled off this mortal coil, praying for their souls.

El Día de Todos los Santos often sees processions, although these aren’t nearly as spectacular as the processions you’ll see during Holy Week, Semana Santa.

There are two Guatemalan towns that host quite famous celebrations on November 1, though. In Todos Santos Cuchumatán in the department of Huehuetenango, the day that’s also the town’s namesake day is celebrated with horse races. Horse owners come from far and wide to enter their animals in these races.

The riders are local men dressed in their traditional garb. What makes these races different from horse races pretty much anywhere else in the world is that the riders – and the spectators too – are completely and utterly wasted. It’s as if they try to make up for not having drunk any alcohol for the rest of the year, when this is very much a dry town.

Another town where the celebrations draw people from all over is Sumpango:

In the department of Sacatepéquez and about half an hour’s drive from Antigua. Here, November 1 sees the festival of the giant kites, or barilletes gigantes. For months before this day, people in Sumpango and its neighboring villages work on constructing huge, colorful kites. These kites can be the height of a building of several stories and it takes an entire team of strong men just to lift them upright. They’re usually too heavy to fly but everyone comes to admire the designs and the messages they’re meant to convey.

Big kites - Guatemala

While Sumpango’s kites are too big to fly, you’ll see kites flying above just about every cemetery in Guatemala on All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day. This is not just because November is a windy month perfect for kite-flying. Instead, it’s because of an old local belief that kites are a way to communicate with the dead.

In Guatemala, tradition has it that on All Souls’ Day, the souls of the departed are allowed to spend the day with the living. So, flying kites in the cemetery is a way of guiding those souls to this realm. The living also go to the cemetery to visit with their departed loved ones. Some start going on Halloween already, armed with the tools they need to clean the graves and repaint them in bright colors. They also bring fresh flowers to decorate the graves. On All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, the atmosphere in the cemetery is festive, with entire families coming to have a picnic next to the graves of their loved ones. Some even bring live bands to play music.

One of the picnic foods that Guatemalan families bring to the cemetery on All Souls’ Day is fiambre. In the past, families would bring their departed loved ones’ favorite dishes to the cemetery for the special day of celebration. Over time, all those dishes got combined into one. So, fiambre is a hearty salad made up of different cold cuts and sausages, cheeses, vegetables and eggs, sometimes with pickles or olives added too. There are as many recipes for fiambre as there are families.

On the evening of All Saint’s Day, the cemetery is still very much a-bustle with families visiting their departed. There are candles and incense burning everywhere too, creating a magical ambience.

Of course you may want to visit the cemetery during this time to see the celebrations first-hand. When you do, however, remember to be respectful and unobtrusive at all times. People use these days to pray for the souls of their loved ones too, so the celebrations are deeply personal and not for the benefit of anybody’s Instagram account.


© 2017 Study Spanish in Guatemala. 

Photography by Rene de Carufel / additional images by Martin Gray

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