Driving out of Guatemala City anytime in October one of the first things you will notice are roadside kiosks selling kites. The further into the highlands you go, the more frequent they become. Big kites, up to four feet across, little kites no more than a foot in diameter. All brightly colored, often in the shape of birds. All hand-made of tissue paper with bamboo frames.
The occasion? Guatemalans are preparing to celebrate All Saints’ Day on November 1 and, in some parts of the country, All Souls Day on the 2nd. All Saints’ Day honours all saints in the Christian tradition and is celebrated in several western churches from the Roman Catholic to Anglican to Methodist. All Souls’ Day is a largely Catholic day of prayer for the departed whose lives may not have justified their immediate entry into heaven.
Why kites? They symbolize the spirits or souls of the deceased flying to heaven.
In Sumpango, Sacatepéquez, which lies next to the Pan American Highway between the capital and Chimaltenango, a festival featuring kites up to 50 ft. in diameter are designed and created by groups of young people in great secrecy. On November 1 the kites take to the air amid food stalls, music, and thousands of awed observers.
In the countryside, kites are only one part of the celebration. On October 31, communities around Chichicastenango gather to clean the roads and paths leading to the cemetery, and each family cleans the graves of its loved ones and the path to its house. Pine needles—a pre-Columbian welcome symbol—are spread across the pathways.
On November 1 each family prepares a large meal, which is left on the table overnight with flowers, candles, and a bowl of water for washing hands. The departed can come and taste the food, then at sunrise on the 2nd the family gathers for a banquet.
The traditional dish in this banquet is Fiambre, a salad that can include up to fifty ingredients. Each family has its own recipe, which is passed down from one generation to the next.
Mariachi bands are part of the celebration in some areas. In Lacamá Primero, a village an hour south of Chichicastenango mariachi play in the cemetery; in Chel, high in the Cuchumatanes Mountains of northern Guatemala, bands perform all day in the village.
Chel celebrates on November 2, All Souls Day. At 5:00 a.m. elderly people go to the cemetery, perform ceremonies at the graves, and set off cherry bombs. Later in the day, families visit the graves, pray together, then share a meal of corn, pumpkin and sweet tortillas.
And, of course, fly kites.