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As the devil burns, he pops and crumples, and his pitchfork sags; the figure is ultimately reduced to simmering embers. Spectators bellow and cheer, a young man thrusts his fist into the air. A brass band breaks into a thumping number as the bomberos blast the remains with arcs of water. The firefighters don’t just extinguish the devil, they douse front-row spectators, whose shrieks seem to give a last gasp of voice to the vanquished evil one.

The quema del diablo, as it’s called in Guatemala, marks the triumph of good over evil and is the official beginning of the Christmas holiday season. It ignites almost a month of Christmas festivities and processions. “It’s a celebration that brings people together and charges them with good vibes prior to the Christmas season,” Girón says.

The annual Quema in Antigua is the largest and best known, but the ritual is celebrated throughout much of central Guatemala at dusk on Dec. 7. People clean out their homes, pile up their trash and burn it, the fires symbolizing purification and freedom from the forces of evil. The message: The devil may wreak havoc all year long, but December belongs to the saints.

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“The first time I saw the burning was quite emotional,” says Elizabeth Bell, who has lived in Antigua for 40 years and is the author of Antigua Guatemala: The City and Its Heritage. “There was a huge gust of wind that came right after the fire. It seemed the devil had left.”

The devil burning isn’t well known outside Guatemala — far more visitors attend Antigua’s Semana Santa procession, which marks Easter Holy Week in early spring. But the Quema is emblematic of the Guatemalan spirit and its mixing of ancient Mayan beliefs and Catholic religious practices. Like Mayan festivals, it is loud, boisterous and jubilant, with firecrackers and marimba music. In true Christian form, it demonstrates that good can trump evil and that no matter how bad things get, there’s always hope for redemption.