Guatemalans kick off the holiday season with a devilish roast.The flames rise 30 feet into the air, casting a lurid glow on spectators’ faces. The burning effigy gives off a villainous stench, its acrid smoke engulfing the plaza. Bomberos (firefighters) watch nervously as thousands of Guatemalans howl and rejoice, stamping their feet and jumping into the air to get a better view of the demise of el diablo.
Sparks drift toward the Esso station nearby; the conflagration illuminates a sign above the pumps that reads “No fumar.” It’s classic Guatemala: You can’t smoke, but you can soak a papier-mâché demon with gas and light it on fire.
The annual Burning of the Devil celebration in the colonial city of La Antigua Guatemala begins with crowds pushing toward a charismatic figure in the center of the Barrio de la Concepción. Towering above the expectant crowd is a scarlet demon, whose wings suggest a fallen angel. On one side of the plaza is the church of La Concepción; on the other, a pair of gas stations. The glowering horned effigy, fearsome with its fangs and pointed tail, is doused with gasoline at dusk.
Around the plaza, vendors hawk colorful balloons, foil pinwheels, plastic devil horns and orbs of cotton candy. Some of the spectators are indigenous Maya, dressed in brightly colored huipiles, blouses with patterns that reveal where their owners are from. Strips of beef sizzle on food-cart grills; the pungent scent of seared meat hangs heavily in the air.
The crowd hurls insults at the devil. “Feo, es feo!” (“Ugly, he’s ugly!”) shouts a girl near me. A boy spits on el diablo and dismissively tosses wads of paper trash at him.
The devil’s “will” is read: He leaves his greed to a wealthy local merchant and his manipulative skills to a prominent local politician, drawing hoots and guffaws from the crowd. Officials are rarely named, says Rudy Girón, an Antigua resident and editor of AntiguaDailyPhoto.com, but everyone knows whom the devil is talking about. “It’s humor-double-meaning speech making sure people know who’s being criticized without actually calling any names,” he says.
As the hour of 6 — believed to be the satanic number — approaches, the plaza and roads that lead to it become so packed, it’s hard to take a deep breath. A marimba-and-brass band plays a dirge as firefighters stand with hoses pointing at el diablo.
Suddenly, a chain of firecrackers explodes, sounding like machine-gun shots piercing the night. “Hay mas! Hay mas!” (“There are more!”), shouts an excited borracho (drunkard), eagerly anticipating the next volley.
At precisely 6 p.m., the exultant crowd counts down: “Cinco, cuatro, tres, dos, uno!” A torchbearer approaches the gas-soaked, 12-foot-high devil and sets the demon ablaze. Satan sizzles and crackles, his three-pronged pitchfork engulfed in orange, green and blue flames.