Guatemala: The Feast Of Saint Thomas In Chichicastenango

Chichicastenango is a beautiful village at the bottom of a mountain, amidst the Sierra Madre at 2,070 meters above sea level. It is located 140km northwest of Guatemala city. The patron feast of Chichicastenango is that of Saint Thomas Apostle, and it’s famous for its religious syncretism. We visited the place.

The name comes from the Nahuatl tzizicastli, meaning ‘nettle’ and tenango ‘place’, thus Chichicastenango means ‘the place of the nettle’. The Santo Tomas church is situated next to the Chichicastenango market. Each of the 18 steps that lead up to the building stands for one month of the lunar calendar, and they originally led to an indigenous temple, when Chichicastenango was called Chiavar. It was built over a pre-Hispanic construction.

Inside, Mayan religious ceremonies that mix pre-Hispanic traditions with Catholic rites take place. It is common to see on the atrium a ceremony where a rooster is beheaded, so the wing movement of the dying bird scares the soul of a dead person, or some witchcraft performed against the indigenous population.

The Santo Tomas church is also revered because, for more than three centuries, the Popol Vuh was kept hidden in its library. The manuscript is the Mayan account of the creation of the universe and mankind as well as the history of traditions and beliefs of the K’iche’ ethnic group.

The K’iche’ concluded the manuscript with the help of the parish priest Francisco Ximenez. It was then taken to the city of Santiago de Guatemala, where it was placed in the Library of the Royal and Pontifical University of San Carlos. The French abate Charles Etienne Bresseur de Bourbourg took it with him during the mid-nineteenth century. After his death it was sold. Today it is the property of the Newberry Library in Chicago.

The K’iche’ maintained their lineage and traditions by means of their brotherhoods especially that of the patron saint. The patron feast of Chichicastenango is that of Saint Thomas Apostle, and is famous for its religious syncretism. It is celebrated annually on the 21st December. During its eve, the Palo Volador or Flying Pole dance is presented. This dance is of pre-Hispanic origin.

The population dresses with its best attire on the main feast day. Traditional dances are presented from the early hours of the morning at the main plaza.

The participants dress with luxurious gowns, decorated with sparkly fringes, sequins, mirrors, as well as colored ostrich, peacock and pheasant feathers. Each dance is accompanied by a small musical band with a chromatic marimba and rattles. Music is played all day as musical groups and marimbas are placed around the plaza, enlivening the patron’s feast. The masks and gowns for each dance are ordered at specialised workshops, which maintain the artisanal and traditional aspects of the performances.

Before the procession of the brotherhood’s effigies, the elders walk to the Catholic church dressed in multicoloured ceremonial gowns. They take along their canes and silver brotherhood insignias. When the mass ends, the sculptures of the 14 brotherhoods are placed around the plaza. They are taken on procession on their portable platforms Saint Peter Martyr, Saint Veracruz, Saint Thomas Aquinas, Saint Michael Archangel, Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, Our Lord of the Ascension, the Sacred Sacrament, Saint Geronimo, Our Lady of the Coronation, Our Lady of the Rosary, Saint Joseph, Saint Sebastian and Saint Thomas Apostle. The procession is short as the effigies only go around the plaza accompanied by the deafening sound of firecrackers and gunpowder bombs.

At the end, the last three effigies in the procession, Saint Sebastian, Saint Joseph and Saint Thomas are left in front of the temple’s gate to be seen by all. The rest of the effigies enter the parish.

Immediately, the brotherhood elder dances the Tzijolaj on the atrium. He takes the effigy of a man on a horse, covered by silver coins. It is thought that this image has the role of an advisor, a psychic, and is a spirit with supernatural powers. While the brother dances and holds the horseman in one hand, he has a lit pyrotechnic grenade in the other. He dances in front of the effigy of Saint Thomas and then steps down dancing to the rhythm of the drums and the chirimla or pre-Hispanic flute.

To end the ceremony, the other brotherhood members tie ropes from the top of the church to the atrium from where they hang the horseman effigy with firecrackers. Then, the brothers celebrate a passage rite, exchanging canes and insignias. They sit at the table, according to their hierarchy with their new appointed insignias on the table, which is dressed with indigenous textiles and rose petals. During this rite, they burn pom and incense, pray in K’iche’ and drink traditional beverages. The saints stay in their thrones in front of the temple until the late hours of the night, when pyrotechnic bulls, bombs and firecrackers are lit accompanied by live marimba music.

– Patricia Mendieta

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