Read Caption
Onlookers watch as a devil pinata burns in the street. (Photograph by Byron Mármol)

Burning the Devil in Guatemala

By Kate Newman

A young man steadies a piñata shaped like the devil on the ground before him. The smug-faced demon is about three feet tall, with spiky red horns, a black tissue-paper goatee, and a small pitchfork in his hand.

He scatters branches and newspaper around the devil’s black boots and snakes a long chain of firecrackers around his chubby waist as the countdown begins. Diez, nueve, ocho….

He dashes inside, returning seconds later with his wife and children, then bends to light a match as the neighborhood chorus reaches uno. The firecrackers pop wildly, making the hollow piñata convulse. The family cheers as the devil keels over and continues to burn. 

Every December 7 at 6:00 p.m. sharp, Guatemalans “burn the devil,” building bonfires outside their homes to mark the occasion. The tradition has special significance in Guatemala City because of its association with the Feast of the Immaculate Conception which honors the city’s patron saint.

But where did the tradition come from, and how is it changing?

Guate is Burning

According to Celso Lara, an expert on Guatemalan popular culture, the origins of la quema del diablo can be traced to colonial times when it was commonplace for people to light lanterns or, for those with lesser means, bonfires outside their homes to celebrate special occasions.

At the Santo Domingo monastery in Antigua, it became an annual tradition to burn a figure of the devil and light firecrackers on the Day of the Rosary in late October. As local priests began to put more emphasis on the Virgin’s triumph over evil, the celebration was pushed back to December to coincide with the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.

Many believed that the devil lurked in the home, crouching behind furniture, tucked under the bed, or concealed in piles of rubbish. To cleanse their homes of evil on the night before the feast, Guatemalans would burn their trash on the eve of the feast.

The addition of devil piñatas has been more recent.

In Zone 1, the historic city center, vendors walk the streets selling devil horns and firecrackers as revelers (many of whom are dressed as devils themselves) make their way along Sexta Avenida, stopping on side streets to add scraps of paper to bonfires as they pass. Many continue on to Central Park, with its baroque cathedral and imposing National Palace, to watch fireworks explode against the smoky night sky.

The Devil’s in the Details

While the celebration may sound fun, it has come under attack from environmental groups. In the past, mostly paper products were burned in the cleansing ritual, but now, garbage is more likely to consist of plastic and rubber. According to Yuri Melini, who heads up an environmental law group in Guatemala, that shift has made all the difference.

“It’s one thing to burn materials like branches, straw, leaves, even a little cardboard devil,” Melini says. “It’s something else entirely to burn plastics, mattresses, styrofoam, things that produce dioxins, which are highly toxic and can lead to cancer.”

With an estimated 500,000 bonfires blazing over the course of an hour in the capital city alone, the effects on the environment are troubling.

The Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources released a widely publicized statement in 2008 warning that one hour of bonfires containing rubber and plastic is equivalent to the carbon dioxide produced by a million and a half cars in circulation at the same time.

While some argue that there is no sense in preserving la quema in light of its harmful effects, the tradition is unlikely to disappear any time soon. Attempts by government to limit — or even ban — the practice have been roundly ignored.

“It’s a very special day because it marks the official start of the Christmas season,” says Miguel Alfredo Álvarez, a historian specializing in Guatemala City. “Families come together after the burning to eat buñuelos, traditional donuts, and drink warm fruit punch.”

Even dedicated environmentalists like Melini oppose outright prohibition. “It’s worth preserving this tradition, fostering it, and improving upon it, because it’s part of the social imaginary,” he says. “But we can do so in a sustainable way, by burning the piñatas instead of other trash.” There’s no sense, he argues, in “stigmatizing, criminalizing, or satanizing la quema del diablo.

Whether to honor the Virgin, celebrate the triumph of good over evil, or for the sheer fun that comes with piñatas and bonfires, Guatemalans will no doubt be burning the devil for many years to come.

Kate Newman won top honors in the “Feature” category in the Next Great Storyteller contest, sponsored by National Geographic Traveler and Matador Network.