La Purísima In Granada

One of the uniquely Nicaraguan customs of the Christmas season is the Purísima tradition. Celebrating the immaculate conception of the Virgin Mary, this annual celebration has taken hold in Nicaragua as in few other places in the world. In order to understand the happiness that is so prevalent during this celebration, some thought should be given to its origin. Though a good history of the Purísima tradition remains to be written, a few facts may shed some light on this celebration for the interested observer.

The cult of the worship of Mary, mother of Jesus, is a very old tradition in the Catholic Church. At least by the 6th century, the church fathers had made a conscious decision to publicly worship Mary. Done for a variety of reasons, the adoration of Mary in some ways resembled the worship of venerated goddesses in other religions of the Middle East.

As with other characteristics of the early church, the idea was to attract as many believers as possible, and so well-known, pre-existing symbols were incorporated into its rituals, rites, and customs. For example, the custom of building the basilica, or church on the eastern side of the town square, a custom commonly employed during the colonial era, was the practice as noted by the famous architect Vitrubius about the year 50 AD, before Christianity became widespread. Similarly, the use of processions and statues to publicly celebrate a deity was established in Roman culture before the advent of Christianity.

The history of the particular celebration of the conception of the mother of Jesus, Mary, —called the Purísima in Nicaragua (short for the “Purísima Concepción de María”) — is rife with different versions, some believable, others less so. There is no one clear theory as to how it started or when, but some information is available. Apparently by at least the 18th century, some form of the Purísima was celebrated by Franciscans, perhaps first in Granada, perhaps first in León-El Viejo.

The Granada version is that the Purísima began to be worshipped because a statue of Mary was found floating in the waters of Lake Nicaragua. The statue had been in El Castillo on the San Juan River. During an attack by the English on the castle, a statue of Mary, in its case, was somehow tossed into the river, where it drifted upstream and across the lake to Granada. There it was found by women washing clothes on the shore on December 7, 1721. Somehow, the statue got to Granada where it is still worshipped today.

In León, according to ancient documents, La Purísima was thought to have begun at the beginnings of the 18th century by the San Franciscans. Monks of the San Francisco convent attracted children and believers with caramels and fruits to sing to the virgin. But eventually too many people came to the church and the monks suggested to the people to start celebrating the singings and prayers to the virgin inside their own homes. The tradition spread to Granada and Masaya, and then to the rest of Nicaragua.

La Purísima is a celebration to the ‘purest conception of Virgin Mary’, taking place on December 8th, according to the Catholic calendar. La Purísima is a tradition celebrated in all parts of Nicaragua by thousands of Nicaraguan families. These celebrations take place at the end of November and during almost all of December.

Purísimas are made for devotion or for gratitude to miracles that persons attribute to Virgin Mary. The families, or a couple of members of a family, create a “novenario” of prayers to the virgin lasting nine days. Sometimes, the first eight days the prayers are private, but the ninth one is celebrated as described previously, but every family puts in a little of their own style. It is interesting how some families inherit the image of the virgin from their ancestors; some of these images have been in the same family over a century. Nowadays, the Purísimas are also celebrated by big enterprises and institutions, and even by Nicaraguans living abroad or by Nicaraguan embassies.

While we are not very religious people it is so Nicaraguan to have religious symbols around the home and it seems to fit the theme of a colonial home so well. We do have many crosses on the wall and for my birthday last year, I had requested Amy to paint the Virgin Mary for me. Though based on an original, she made some subtle changes to it. There are advantages to being married to an artist.

Here in Granada the nine major streets each celebrate the Purisima on a different night. This means lots of fireworks and lots of people. We don’t understand why loud fireworks are part of a religious celebration but that is our hangup and not the Nicaraguans. Then each day that street holds its own celebration with a parade of one float with the statue of Mary on it. The streets compete with each other for the best float and after each parade the statue is returned to the main cathedral.  I believe this year our street, Santa Lucia, is the first street to celebrate on Friday November 29th, 2013.  So, the Purisima parades will be November 29th – December 7th on the following streets:

El Arsenal
Santa Lucia (our street)
La Inmaculada
Sur Xalteva
La Concepcion
La Calzada

At least on our street these are the typical activities:  About a week before our street’s celebration (Calle Santa Lucia) people come to the door asking for donations to sponsor this event. The night before the parade a small crew of people appears like little elves and strings up the lights criss-crossing the entire length of the street. Large images of angels are placed every few homes down the street and banners also are raised.

Around 5:00 PM the vendors appear selling everything from cotton candy to hot dogs to ice cream to plastic toys. In front of our home alone there are about 10 vendors. Around 6:00 PM we and our neighbors move our rockers and chairs to the sidewalk to begin the night of celebration. This is what colonial living is all about. Neighbors walk by, look at your Christmas tree and adornments, and begin mixing with the growing crowd. We set up a small table of bocas and drinks then friends begin arriving to share the experience. It really is all about people-watching. The more religious people go to the end of the street where a large altar is located, to say their prayers and honor the Virgin Mary before the parade begins.

Around 8:00 PM even more fireworks explode in multi-color oscillations. When we arrived over seven years ago, there were only boomers but now they can afford the more elaborate fireworks. In previous years just the one float slowly made the journey past our home with a generator following to provide power to the lights and the boombox for the music. There is more money now so last year there was a police vehicle with flashing lights, the float with the Virgin Mary, another police vehicle and a live band. The brief moment passes with our newer friends taking many pictures. The crowd dissipates, the vendors disappear and the little elves magically appear to begin taking down the lights and other decorations. We watched them scamper up the poles to disconnect the lights without gloves or any tools. Surprisingly we do not see any of the elves electrocuted which is a miracle in itself. Within minutes the street is empty except for the trash which will quickly disappear in the morning.

Our next big day is then December 7th when many of our neighbor’s children will celebrate their first communion, one of our favorite events here in Granada.

Not sure which days this occurs but In Masaya, Granada and other towns, people celebrate the ‘Posadas’. From some churches, the priest and other believers accompany costumed children who represent Joseph, Mary and some shepherds. They go from door to door and sing popular folk songs asking for a place because ‘Mary is going to give birth’, and from inside the house the children are answered with popular folk songs denying them the entry, as it happened in Bethlehem according to the Bible. Finally, a door opens and the Holy Family may enter. It is pretty cute since rather young children are dressed as Joseph, Mary and the shepherds. You will see long lines of children with beards, robes and other paraphernalia.

Then we have Christmas and New Year’s Eve.