The Importance of All Saint’s Day

Colourful Mayan cemetery in Chichicastenango, Guatemala.

Photo By Ralf Steinberger. (CC BY 2.0)

By Kelly Shank –

Guatemala is known for its big, colorful celebrations. National holidays are packed full of fireworks, music, food, and big gatherings. Family is also very important within Latin American culture and is at the center of celebrations. All Saint’s Day incorporates the importance of family into a very special holiday celebration.

Guatemalan FiambreWhile those of us in the United States celebrate Halloween on October 31st, our Guatemalan friends focus on November 1st, the holiday known as All Saint’s Day. Based in long-standing tradition, All Saint’s Day is one of the most important holidays for Guatemalan families and serves as a way for families to recognize and honor their deceased relatives, an annual memorial day to their families. Although the day celebrates those who have died, it is not a day of sadness. Instead families truly celebrate the lives of their family members.

Unlike what we might expect in Northern America, on November 1st the cemeteries of Guatemala are transformed into elaborate festivals. Relatives spend hours creating brightly painted designs on tombs and fill the area with fresh flowers. The wonderful colors, fragrant smells, and marimba music offer the perfect backdrop for a day of celebrations.

Ladies prepare a special traditional meal called Fiambre, a large salad that incorporates the favorite foods of the families—vegetables, sausages, lunch meats, and cheeses, specifically for the occasion. Although each family’s version is passed down amongst generations, the meal itself is a tradition throughout the country. In the midst of the transformed cemeteries families gather to spend the day celebrating.

All Saints Days Kite

Photo by rpphotos. (CC BY-NC 2.0)

In places like Sumpango, families carry on the tradition of kite flying for All Saints Day. Tradition states that the kites were originally created to carry messages to the souls of dead family members in the sky. As the kites were released the notes would be carried away. The kite flying tradition continues today as families spend months designing and building the intricate structures. A mixture of art, tradition, and pride, each kite is uniquely designed using colored paper and then affixed on a bamboo frame. Ranging in size from 2 meters to more than 20 meters the kites each include messages for the community. Many share messages of love, peace, and unity while others also promote awareness of social issues. The artistry of these creations is beyond words.

On the morning of November 1st families begin to assemble their kites at the local cemetery. Although some smaller kites may be flown throughout the day, the full spectacle does not take place until evening. After honoring the dead and celebrating with family during the day, locals hoist the magnificent kites into the air at dusk. For a short period of time the sky is a colorful display of Guatemalan artistry.

Although the holiday occurs only once each year we see the love that Guatemalan families share every day when we work in communities. Every time our teams are welcomed into homes, offered meals, and prayed for, we experience a glimpse of being family.

1 Comment

  1. Deb Dorsey

    Such a lovely story that is so rich in culture and tradition: I am overjoyed and overwhelmed at the prospect of spending time in Guatemala with people who see the importance of love and family!

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