Guatemalan Official: Burning Devil Dirties The Air

Vendors sell hundreds of thousands of devil pinatas in the days leading up to Dec. 7. i i

Vendors sell hundreds of thousands of devil pinatas in the days leading up to Dec. 7, when Guatemalans burn devil figures to banish bad spirits and celebrate the beginning of the Christmas season. John Burnett/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption John Burnett/NPR
Vendors sell hundreds of thousands of devil pinatas in the days leading up to Dec. 7.

Vendors sell hundreds of thousands of devil pinatas in the days leading up to Dec. 7, when Guatemalans burn devil figures to banish bad spirits and celebrate the beginning of the Christmas season.

John Burnett/NPR

Guatemalans on Sunday celebrated a beloved tradition: "Burning of the Devil." Across the country, people lit bonfires and burned figures of Satan as a way to symbolically cleanse their houses. But the minister of the environment, for the first time, had asked Guatemalans not to burn the devils because it pollutes the air.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Guatemala has just celebrated a beloved tradition: la quema del diablo, the burning of the devil. Across the country, people lit bonfires and burned images of Satan as a way to symbolically cleanse their houses. The government thinks this custom has gone too far. NPR's John Burnett sent this postcard from Guatemala City.

JOHN BURNETT: You know that burn the devil night is coming in Guatemala when you see big, red, horned pinatas hanging in storefronts.

(Soundbite of woman speaking Spanish)

BURNETT: Vendors flag down traffic on the chaotic streets of Guatemala City. Blanca De Solaris(ph) bought four paper-mache Lucifers and stuffed them in her trunk.

Ms. BLANCA DE SOLARIS: (Spanish Spoken)

BURNETT: With this tradition, we open the season of Christmas, she said. The night begins with a bonfire the children make in front of their houses with trash. It's a very important tradition to Guatemalans. You can't just ask us to stop it.

(Soundbite of explosions)

BURNETT: But the government thinks devil burning has gotten out of hand. What started with a folklore cleansing ritual has now become an opportunity for people to light great pyres of household refuse, including mattresses and tires. An acrid cloud suffuses the capital, not good for people with respiratory problems. This year the environment ministry asked Guatemalans to scale back their pyromania. The leading newspaper Prensa Libre grumbled, polluting the air is the opposite of purification. The campaign apparently had little or no effect. At six o'clock sharp last night, the capital erupted in pyrotechnics.

(Soundbite of fireworks)

BURNETT: And the devil got a taste of his own medicine.

Mr. LOUIS AVICHE(ph): (Spanish spoken)

BURNETT: They said don't burn garbage, said Louis Aviche, a telephone salesman whose son danced happily in the ashes of a smoldering devil, but we just burned a pinata made of newspaper. It's a family tradition. We think it gets rid of all the bad spirits in your house. Maybe they should try it on Wall Street. John Burnett, NPR News, Guatemala City.

INSKEEP: You can see photos of the ceremony by going to npr.org.

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