The Fiesta de Santo Tomás of Chichicastenango, Guatemala
A carver in a Chichi morería prepares a vaquero (cowboy) mask.
Guatemala is a country as rich in masking traditions as in volcanic soil. Chichicastenango, or Chichi as it is called by locals, is a small town located in the El Quiché department of southwest Guatemala. Its population of about 45,000 is almost entirely Mayan K’ich’e (Quiché). Most of the year, the town is quiet and uneventful, but during several major holidays, the town comes alive, tripling in population from the surrounding neighborhoods.
The most famous festival in Chichi is the Fiesta de Santo Tomás, in honor of the town’s patron saint. The Fiesta occurs in mid-December every year, and lasts a full week. It is organized by a cofradía, or honorable fraternity of town elders. The parade of the cofradía through the town toward the church, accompanied by flute and drum music, marks the beginning and end of the festival.
In the Baile del Tzijolaj, a member of the cofradía dances carrying a St. Thomas icon.
During the celebration, icons of St. Thomas, the Virgin Mary, St. Joseph, St. Sebastian, and other saints are paraded through the streets with currency attached to them, accompanied by taper-bearers, marimba and flute players, and men who set off loud fireworks. Also accompanying the saints is the important Baile del Tzijolaj, or Dance of the Flute, during dancers known as Aj Kam carry a small wooden figure, with a necklace of coins, mounted on a white horse. The figure represents St. Thomas and is believed to confer prosperity on the town. In addition, the Fiesta includes several different dances and rituals, nearly all of them masked.