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The tradition began in the colonial era, when wealthy families set lanterns in front of their homes on the eve of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Too poor to buy lanterns, those of lesser means gathered sticks and trash from their homes to build bonfires.

Though the Burning of the Devil celebration is wildly popular, there’s growing concern about pollution and toxic fumes. Beyond Antigua, some celebrate La Quema del Diablo by incinerating trash, including plastic and sometimes even tires, in front of their houses. Because of the adverse ecological impact, Girón says, some people want to banish the Quema. Today, in response, many families torch only a piñata of the devil. Girón says he favors this approach.

Historian Celso A. Lara Figueroa dismisses pollution concerns. “No one,” he told the Guatemalan magazine Revue, “can claim to have the right to put an end to [our] traditions.”

It’s not surprising that Antigua’s residents want to expunge their demons. At the foot of three volcanoes, this colonial town has been bedeviled by natural disasters and other calamities throughout its almost 500-year history.

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Founded in 1543 by conquistadors after a flood destroyed neighboring Ciudad Vieja, Antigua served as the Spanish capital of Central America for more than two centuries, until the 1770s. In 1773, a thundering earthquake destroyed much of Antigua, burying some citizens under mounds of rubble. Two years later, the capital moved to what is now Guatemala City. Today, on almost every street in the one-square-mile town of Antigua, you can see the ruins of colonial churches or other buildings that collapsed in that quake.

Fuego Volcano, simmering in the distance, remains active, puffing out plumes of smoke with occasional eruptions of ash and lava. But fortunately for Antigua, Fuego is too far away, scientists say, to threaten the town.

Back at the Barrio de la Concepción, elated revelers file out of the plaza, sodden ashes from the once-menacing diablo clinging to their clothes. Around this colonial village and beyond, little bonfires and piñatas are fading to black. This ritual of purification has banished the devil and the evil he incarnates, clearing the way for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception and the Christmas ceremonies to follow.

And on this night, a beautiful land that’s often been disrupted by natural cataclysms and internal strife knows the sweet contentment of peace.