Every year it was the same: on December 7th (and sometimes the days before or after it), we would gather at my grandmother’s house to sit in front of an altar dedicated to the Virgin Mary, to sing songs and get small gifts like candy and fresco de acao and dollar-store toys. It was a holiday only my family and a few others I knew celebrated in my neighborhood—mainly because we’re Nicaraguan. The mostly Catholic holiday has two parts, each identifying different aspects of the festivities. There’s La Purisima and La Griteria, and they both hold a place in my heart.
The origin of these coinciding festivities is a bit muddled, and while many Nicaraguans celebrate the occasion, less actually know how it all began. According to LouisianaFolkLife.org, it all began in the 18th century when monks from a convent in Leon decided to use “candy and fruit to attract children and believers to come and sing to the image of the Virgin.” Seeing how well this tactic drew a crowd, they asked the townspeople to erect altars to Maria in their own homes. And thus, the tradition of La Purisima began and spread across Nicaragua. A few years later (1857 to be exact), La Gritería was added when, according to ViaNica.com, Monsignor Giordano Carranza introduced the tradition of shouting “Quien causa tanta alegria?!” to which folks respond, “La Concepcion de Maria!” (“Who causes so much joy?!” “The conception of Mary!”)
Nowadays, Catholic families all over Nicaragua from Managua to Masaya to Matagalpa take time to erect their own altars in their homes, adorned with blue-and-white backdrops to resemble the sky, and a statue of la Virgen herself, wearing a golden crown. Candles and palm fronds might also be used in these altars. I recall my own abuela making these at her place, using small twinkle lights all around to make it shine. And when I was growing up in the heavily Nicaraguan neighborhood of Sweetwater (a suburb of Miami), I’d often attend Purisimas around town, where altars would be placed in and outside of local Nicaraguan-owned businesses for people to observe and sing to. These altars are generally erected by late November or early December, and one can invite guests over to sing songs to Mary and enjoy a nice meal of nacatamales or other typical Nicaraguan foods by the end.
Oh yes, that’s right. On top of the altars, there’s plenty of singing involved on this occasion. There are various songs that are specific to La Purisima and La Griteria, songs that I remember fondly from my childhood. Songs like, “Por Eso El Cristianismo” and “Escucha Oh Tierna Madre” are among the Nicaraguan folk songs dedicated to La Virgen, and are often heard at las Purisimas, sung mainly by the pious older women in attendance. If you’ve never heard these songs, it’s perfectly fine. Many hosts at Purisimas will print out small booklets for attendees where they’ll find the lyrics to every tune.
If it sounds like a pretty religious occasion, well, it technically is. But you don’t have to be Catholic to enjoy the celebration. While I grew up Catholic, I’ve been an atheist for quite some time and see no reason to stop enjoying what I feel is a wholly cultural tradition. In fact, the one time I was able to celebrate while in Nicaragua, I had already left my Catholic faith behind. And while I loved celebrating Purisimas and La Gritería in Miami, it wasn’t until I experienced it in Nicaragua that I really understood how massive and important December 7th is to the entire nation.
At 6 a.m., you’ll hear the first blasts in the air: fireworks to announce to everyone, Catholic or otherwise, that it’s time for La Gritería to begin. Fireworks go off every few hours all around the country on this day. Families with altars stock up for the evening’s festivities, where they’ll be giving out gifts to everyone who comes by and answers the same question Monsignore Carranza introduced so long ago. While trick-or-treating on Halloween here in the States is generally seen as something only children are supposed to do, you’ll find people young and old going door-to-door on this evening, usually starting around 6 p.m. And what do they collect? Everything from sugar cane to bags of rice and beans and other staples, fresh juices and other traditional drinks, local sweets and sometimes even toys and noisemakers for the little ones.
Other delights you might encounter while walking the streets of Nicaragua on this evening are La Gigantona and El Enano. These two characters are often created out of papier-mâché, with La Gigantona placed on a long stick so someone hiding underneath her dress can prop her up and make her dance. El Enano is usually just a giant head worn by another individual who dances along with La Gigantona. La Gigantona came about as a way to mock the rich Spanish colonialists, while El Enano is meant to be more of a depiction of the indigenous people who have been wronged for so long. Together, they dance around the streets while others might follow with instruments to play them songs, and they can usually be found randomly in the streets throughout December.
El 7 de diciembre usually winds down with folks having a meal and maybe even having a few drinks (una cerveza perhaps or some Flor de Cana). You might spend time reminiscing about the festivities of previous years or digging into your pillowcase to see all the goodies you collected along your block. It’s a little like Christmas, a little like the 4th of July, a little like Halloween, and 100% Nicaraguan pride. Should you ever find yourself in Nicaragua in early December, make sure to take part in the local festivities. They are truly a sight to behold.