Christmas in Belize
A Brief History
It is believed that the Pre-Columbian history of Belize begins when Paleo-Indians arrived in the area [Pre-Columbian history of the Americas refers to the time before Columbus made contact with the people living there]. Paleo-Indians, a nomadic group, entered the Americas across the frozen Bering Strait from Asia. Thousands of years later their descendants created the Mayan culture.
The Mayan Empire was one of the most sophisticated civilizations in the Americas. The Empire stretched out over modern southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador and Honduras. The Mayan civilization reached its zenith during the 6th, 7th and 8th century AD. In the 10th century, the once great culture mysteriously declined. By the time the Spaniards arrived in the 16th century, there were still many Maya in the region. Despite the fact that they were no longer the unified power they once were, the Maya put up a stiff fight. However, as in all the areas the Spaniards conquered, they brought diseases that weakened the native population and further aided the European conquest.
In the 17th century, Britain and Scotland used buccaneers as a means to challenge Spanish control in the region. In a treaty signed in 1667, European powers agreed to suppress pirating. With the decline of piracy, many buccaneers changed professions to cutting logwood in the rich tropical forests of Belize. Britain finally gained full control from Spain in 1798 by defeating the Spanish Armada at St. George's Caye. In 1840, Great Britain officially declared Belize: the colony of British Honduras. The country did not gain full independence and the official name of Belize until 1981.
Christianity was introduced to the Maya by Catholic missionaries that accompanied the Conquistadors. Therefore, the majority of Belizeans are Roman Catholic. However, due to British influence, Belize has the largest Protestant population of any Central American country. The Maya and and Garifuna practice a mixture of Christianity and traditional beliefs.
Belize has a very diverse society. Its multicultural demographic is reflected in the country's varied Christmas traditions. The Christmas season in Belize is celebrated during the entire month of December. The season kicks off with the Christmas Tree Lighting. While many Belizeans celebrate Christmas the North American way with tree decorating, and Santa Claus, a lot of other local traditions are part of the celebration as well. As Belize is a predominantly Christian country, midnight mass is an important part of the celebration of Christ's birth.
In some parts of Belize, the Christmas Bram is a tradition from the Belize Kriol culture. The Bram is similar to “caroling”-- people travel through the streets singing and playing Brukdong music while dancing from house to house.
In Dangriga, Christmas afternoon is celebrated with the Wanaragua or Jankunu dance. The Jankunu dancers dress in white long sleeve shirts and pants with belts of shells tied around their knees and pink masks bearing European features. These costumes are meant to imitate the slave masters. The dance became common during Christmas and New Years because it was the only time that families were free to make fun of their European slave masters. A major part of the holiday celebration is the Jankunu competition in Dangriga which is a competition between the senior Jankunu dancers of Southern Belize--namely Dangriga-- and the village of Seine Bight.
Jankunu dancers and drummers - Garifuna boys dressed as European colonizers*
The Maya Deer Dance is popular in the Santa Cruz area and is performed by 24 or so dancers dressed in colorful costumes. These dancers include three different groups: the Spanish men, the deer and the other jungle animals. All the dancers are masked. The Spaniards are depicted with white faces, yellow hair and long noses. The deer have antlers, and all the rest are garbed as various jungle animals. The Europeans have guns and are shooting the deer, who disappear throughout the play. Finally, the other animals have had enough of this and chase the Spaniards away.
Maya Deer Dancers
The moral of the story is the importance of balance in nature and not over-hunting. Although the play has evolved to cast the Spaniards as the antagonists, anthropologists believe the play predates their arrival. It is believed that it is a lesson the Maya learned the hard way and their lack of concern for environmental issues led to the their empire's demise. There is evidence that many Mayan cities were destroyed through deforestation and degrading the environment.
As in most countries, food is an important part of the Christmas celebration. Belize is not different. The traditional western meal of turkey with all the trimmings are enjoyed, with added local traditional foods. These dishes include rice and beans, potato salad, white relleno (a soup with pork-stuffed chicken and raisins), pebre (roasted pork and gravy), ham with pickled onions and jalapeños and tamales. Belizean rum is potent in the black fruitcake and rumpopo. Rumpopo is a well-known Belizean version of eggnog, and a favorite at Christmastime.
Tourism is the most important revenue source in Belize. But more than four out of ten people in Belize live in poverty, and the family structure has been decimated, with many children orphaned or left to support themselves.
Belize is a common destination for short-term mission trips, and while this provides many benefits to the nation such as reading skills, health care, and childcare, it also causes a dependent and reliant spirit amongst the nationals.
Although Belize is a majority Christian nation, only about 10% attend church on a weekly basis.
Pray for Belize's economy and for governing authorities to make wise decisions for their nation. Pray for doctrinally-sound, affordable, and centralized training programs for pastors. Pray for strong families and against poverty in Belize.
Pray for ministries diligently working to educate and care for those suffering from HIV/AIDS.
*Photo courtesy of Island Expeditions, used with permission