Around the world, people do things to remember their loved ones in different ways. It can be through celebrations and festivities or quiet prayer and mourning. In Guatemala, the most important holiday to pay respect to the deceased is on Nov. 1, All Saints Day, or Dia de Todos Santos. On this day, the country transforms into a lively exhibition of remembrance filled with flowers, artistic decorations, and food.
The Kite Festival
A unique part of this Guatemalan tradition is the kite festival. This is a spectacular display of extravagantly enormous, brightly colored kites that fill the sky. Locals say that these huge kites are used as a way to connect with the deceased, and these kites take over the skies of Santiago Sacatepequez and Sumpango, where the largest kite festivals take place.
The kites are made with rice paper and bamboo, all of them boast different designs and can span up to 65 feet in diameter. The tradition says that the soul of the deceased is able to identify family members by the color and design of the kite and communicate through the thread. Others include messages in the kites that generate social, political, or cultural awareness.
During the morning they are exhibited, and then there is a competition. Whoever keeps the kite in the air for the longest time wins (with enough wind, these large structures can fly). At the end of the day, the kites are burned near cemeteries, which allows the dead to return to their resting place. The legend says that if the kites do not burn, the souls do not want to leave, which may be damaging to the relatives, crops, or animals.
Prepping the Tombs
A couple of days before Dia de Los Santos, some families prepare the tombs to assure they look good on the day that the spirits of their loved ones come back. Many spend time cleaning, painting, and decorating the graves with lively colors. On the morning of Nov. 1, families begin their procession to the cemetery to pray and pay respect, often playing Mariachi music and singing favorite songs of the deceased. From single roses to enormous wreaths, flowers abound, converting cemeteries into colorful gardens.
Outside, roads are flooded with themed street food. Church bells ring, announcing the time for Mass.
The Ribbon Race
Another way to celebrate is attending the Ribbon Race or Carrera de Cintas. This is a horse race where the riders dress in elaborate costumes boasting feathers and special jackets. The event celebrates Dia de Los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, which is also on Nov. 1. Carrera de Cintas takes place in Todos Santos Cuchumantanes in Huehuetenango, about five hours from Guatemala City.
The riders try to stay on their horse all day, doing rounds on the 328-foot track while drinking alcohol or agua ardiente. There are no winners or losers, and there are no consequences for falling. The tradition, however, is that a rider must participate for four consecutive years to not have bad luck. Marimba music is played throughout the day. At night there's a fireworks show.
The Traditional Meal
The traditional meal to commemorate this holiday is el fiambre, an authentic cold dish made with more than 50 ingredients that include vegetables, sausages, meats, fish, egg, and cheeses. It is usually eaten with the family gathered either at home or surrounding the tomb of a loved one. This dish takes about two days to prepare. The most common dessert is a sweet squash, sweetened with brown sugar and cinnamon, or sweet plums or chickpeas drenched in honey.