Christmas in Nicaragua

December has been lovely, breezy, and cool in the department of Carazo, weather that Nicaraguans like to describe as fresco, fresh. Back in October I decided, for a number of reasons, to stay in Nicaragua for the holidays, which ended up being more emotionally straining than I had anticipated. It is my first time away from home not only for Christmas and New Year’s, but also for my birthday, which I have always been lucky to spend surrounded by friends and family. I suppose it’s not really surprising at all that I would feel some sadness at this time of year to not be with the people I love most! Anyway, part of my reasons for staying were to observe some of the holiday traditions and practices here, and I wanted to share some of them with you.

On December 7th, many Nicaraguans celebrate Purísima, a Catholic-based holiday dedicated to celebrating the immaculate conception of María. Purísima literally means “most pure,” a reflection of how highly esteemed and precious la virgen de María is in the Catholic faith. From what I understand, Purísima, although originating from the introduction of Catholicism by Spanish colonists, is specific to Nicaragua. Besides Nicaragua, it is celebrated in other places with strong Nicaraguan communities, like Costa Rica and Miami, Florida

One of my PCV friends described Purísima as the result of Christmas and Halloween having a baby on the Fourth of July, which I think is a very apt description. The days leading up to December 7th are devoted to prayers and events for the la Virgen María, with lots of bombas or loud firework explosions. The holiday terminates with la gritería (literally, “the shouting, the crying”) on the night of the 7th, a sort of mix of caroling and trick-or-treating that I got to partake in, thanks to an invitation from my friend Maiya to go out with her family. Catholic families set up altars for María adorned with flowers and lights, and groups of people come to sing songs of praise and adoration to her. 

purisimaUnfortunately, I didn’t take any pictures of the altars to María that I went to. This is one in Managua, taken by La Prensa, one of the national Nicaraguan newspapers.

In return for their singing, they receive gifts of all sorts handed out by the family. These include plastic tupperware containers or bowls, bags of cooking oil, pasta, or sugar, potato chips, fruit drinks, candy, matches, corn on the cob, just to name a few. Children often get special toys or gifts. Raw sugar cane and citrus fruits are also commonly given, as they are in season in December.

I was excited to go out and see what Purísima was all about, but nervous that I didn’t know any of the songs! My host family reassured me I could just blend in with the crowd. When you arrive at an altar, one person says: “¿Quién causa tanta alegría?” (Who causes so much joy?). The rest of the group responds “¡La concepción de María!” (the conception of Maria!). Then the group enters in one of the many songs to give thanks for María. Maiya met me in the street, and we went to the first house just the two of us. I stood awkwardly next to her while she sang out loudly, clearly, and fearlessly to the virgin. We received big plastic bowls for our (Maiya’s) efforts. Later, we met up with Maiya’s mother, daughters, and cousins and I was indeed able to blend into the bigger group.

As the night when on and my plastic bowl filled with uncooked pasta, toilet paper, and other goodies, it dawned on me that this was a holiday for the rich to give to the poor. It did seem to be the nicer houses that had set up altars, and I had collected enough to make a decent meal, as well as goodies to enjoy, and I had only been out for a few hours. Many people begin their “caroling” as it begins to get dark, and stay out until after midnight.

It makes a lot of sense that Nicaraguans would create a holiday of gift-giving based on an important Catholic figure. I am often impressed at the generosity of Nicaraguans. Just this past weekend, I visited a friend in the department of Boaco. Five of us stayed with his host family, and his host mom made us dinner and breakfast the two nights we were there. She mostly cooked us beans and rice (gallo pinto), eggs, and cheese, to make delicious and economical meals. The day we left, we bought some fruits and left some cash in thanks, but I’m sure she did not expect anything in return. Her kindness is only one example of the Nicaraguan tendency to give what you can, and the spirit of Purísima fits exactly into this tradition.

I was glad to be a part of such a beautiful holiday with such a generous purpose. How wonderful to provide food, toys, and necessities for families that may not be able to afford to provide such things to their children over the holiday season. It’s like community insurance that everyone will have a happy Christmas. It did feel uncomfortable for me, as someone in comfortable economic standing, to receive such gifts when I don’t really need them, so I gifted almost everything I got to my host family or other friends in my community, though I did keep some tupperware for myself…and I tried some sugar cane.

Christmas itself was pretty quiet. I made some of my favorite Christmas cookies to share with friends a few days before.

img_6330Sandies and Peanut Butter Blossoms. Classics in my family.

I spent Christmas Eve with my host family, and my host dad’s side of the family came to visit, bearing gifts of tequila and flan. I spent the evening eating very well, and listening to my host grandfathers and uncles playing music. “Feliz Navidad” was sung several times with much gusto.

img_6351Sugar cane fields on Christmas Eve day.

Christmas Day found me delivering cookies and visiting with different families I have gotten to know. Tomorrow, I’m heading to the beach town of San Juan del Sur to ring in the new year (and celebrate my 25th birthday!) with Peace Corps friends. I wish you all lots of peace and love for 2017, and I want to leave you with this silly song Nicaraguans play at the end of the year.

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