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History of the Nicaragua Holidays
Spanish colonizers and conquistadors brought to Nicaragua the traditional practices of Europe. Many of these practices were changed by the ‘mestizaje’ (mixture of cultures).
In 1562, a Spaniard was traveling to Peru via Nicaragua and was forced to stay in the port of The Realejo, Nicaragua, due to storms. While staying at the village of El Viejo, he placed a beautiful image of Virgin Mary in the local basilica. News of this traveled quickly with the result of many Indians and mestizos traveling from far away to see and pray to the image. When the owner decided to leave and to take his virgin, many people went to to the port. New storms forced the owner to return to El Viejo. Due to the celebrations and the apparent divine will, the owner decided to leave the image and to depart without it.
Supposedly, ‘La Gritería’ began in 1857 when Monsignor Giordano Carranza recommended believers to shout the phrase “the purest conception of Maria!” from house to house, throughout León. The tradition spread and soon some composers created the canticles that are used nowadays.
Holy Week (Semana Santa) in Nicaragua
In Nicaragua, the combination of strong Catholic traditions and a celebrative character make the Holy Week celebrations one of the most commemorative events of the year. It is a time of many processions for several weeks before Easter. During Semana Santa Nicaragua commemorates the death and resurrection of Jesus. These celebrations take place at the end of March or at the beginning of April. During Holy Week, many people participate in processions that are inspired by biblical passages. These processions take place throughout Nicaragua, in most towns and cities, organized by the Catholic Church. Semana Santa is the busiest week of the whole year for the religious community. Some of the many processions follow below:
Service of Darkness
On the morning of Good Friday many churches organize a procession known as Santo Entierro or Service of Darkness or Service of Shadows, symbolizing Jesus’ death and burial. This is a very solemn procession, accompanied by a drum roll and wind instruments that symbolize funeral songs. In the churches, Jesus’ statue is placed in a casket then carried around on the street followed by silent worshipers who often carry candles or torches.
This is a procession full of music and joy. From one church the statue of Jesus starts its procession, while another church starts a procession with a statue of Mary then the two processes meet in a certain part of the city. These processions symbolize Jesus reuniting with Mary after his resurrection and when they meet, the people show joy with music and prayers. The two processions will then return to their respectivechurches. These processions take place on the final day of Holy Week, on Easter day.
Protestants, known in Nicaragua as the Evangelists, do not share the same Catholic traditions but they have their own celebrations during Holy Week. Some different faiths of Christian Protestants, group together and transport themselves in bus to beaches, rivers, lagoons, etc. The people will then enter the water, pray, and baptize new members of their churches.
In Bluefields and other cities on the Caribbean Coast, a major part of the population practices the Morava religion. Catholics from this region celebrate the Holy Week with similar processions as the rest of the country. However, Moravas have a well-known tradition on Holy Sunday or Resurrection Sunday, when people gather in graveyards to attend a mass, and to clean up the burial grounds or tombs of their family and ancestors. This is similar to the other Nicaraguan tradition of Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) of November 2nd.
This is one of my favorites. Ox-pulled carts start to arrive at the Guanacaste junction in the city of Nandaime two weeks before Holy Week. The carts arrive one by one or sometimes in long caravans. They come from different places in Nicaragua: Carazo, Masaya, Granada, and Rivas. It is a slow caravan which can infuriate drivers trying to get by. The long line of carts sometimes takes four days to reach the Popoyupa sanctuary, located in San Jorge, Rivas where an open-air mass is held. The purpose of the pilgrimage is to show thankfulness and faith to the image of Nuestro Señor del Rescate de Popoyuapa, whom they acknowledge for previous miracles that happened in their live.
Dog Day – San Lázaro (Lazarus)
On the second to last Sunday before the beginning of Holy Week, hundreds of dogs of all types are brought to the Santa María Magdalena parish church in the Monimbó neighborhood of Masaya. These dogs arrive wearing various forms of dress from the simple to the elegant
This strange event takes place during the celebration of San Lázaro (Lazarus) in Masaya. The owners and their dogs arrive early in the morning at the church where benches have been removed and the floor is covered by sand to make cleaning afterwards easier. At 10AM a mass is held in honor of Lazarus and if too many people come then some of the participants join the mass from outside the church.
People from many other parts of Nicaragua with their dressed up pets to show thankfulness or to ask for miracles for their family or friends, and of course, to ask for miracles for the dogs as well. The participation of the dogs is based on the biblical passages where dogs were said to lick the sores of Lazarus.
Battle of San Jacinto
Nicaragua won its independence in stages: first as a part of the Mexican empire of Agustin de Iturbide in 1822, then as a member of the Central American Federation in 1823, and finally as an individual sovereign state in 1838. Throughout this period, the Leonese, who eventually came to call
themselves Liberals, and the Granadinos, who championed the Conservative cause, squabbled and fought with each other over the control of their country. After 1838, the chaos and interregional warfare intensified. Presidents came and went as one group or the other imposed temporary control.
In 1854, the Liberals, who were at the time losing in a struggle to unseat the Conservatives, turned for help to a San Franciso-based soldier of fortune named William Walker. Walker sailed in June 1855 from California to Nicaragua with a small band of armed Californians. After some initial military setbacks he and his Liberal allies took Granada in October and set up a coalition government under a Conservative, Patricio Rivas. Almost from the start, the real power in the government was Walker himself, who rapidly began to implement a series of ideas that included the encouragement of foreign investment and the increased exploitation of Nicaraguan resources. In July 1856, Walker formally took over the presidency. He planned to use the city of Granada as a base to build a Central American empire. Many Nicaraguans of both parties became increasingly alarmed at the foreign takeover of their country.
This was especially true in 1856 when Walker, the dictator-president, legalized slavery and declared English to be the official language. As a result, it was not long before the onset of a war in which Nicaraguans of both parties and, at one time or another, troops from all of the Central American republics fought against the hated foreigners. Walker’s forces were finally forced to flee from Granada. Before doing so, his men set fire to the city, and one of them left behind a sign reading “Here was Granada.” Most of the city was destroyed.
In the spring of 1857, the U.S. government intervened to arrange a truce and to allow Walker to surrender and leave Nicaragua. (Walker returned to Central America in yet another filibustering attempt in 1860, but he was captured by the British and turned over to the Hondurans, who quickly tried him and put him before a firing squad.) So important is the war against Walker in Nicaraguan patriotic lore that the independence day that Nicaragua celebrates on September 14 is a commemoration of a decisive battle at San Jacinto against Walker and his troops
Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) – November 2nd.
Nicaragua has a holiday similar to Halloween. Los Dias de los Muertos, the Days of the Dead, is a traditional Central American and Mexican holiday honoring the dead. It is celebrated every year at the same time as Halloween and the Christian holy days of All Saints Day and All Souls Day (November 1st and 2nd). Los Dias de los Muertos is not a sad time, but instead a time of remembering and rejoicing.
In the homes families arrange ofrendas or “altars” with flowers, bread, fruit and candy. Pictures of the deceased family members are added. In the late afternoon, special all night burning candles are lit – it is time to remember the departed – the old ones, their parents and grandparents.
The next day the families travel to the cemetery. They arrive with hoes, picks and shovels. They also carry flowers, candles, blankets, and picnic baskets. They have come to clean the graves of their loved ones. The grave sites are weeded and the dirt raked smooth. The crypts are scrubbed and swept. Colorful flowers, bread, fruit and candles are placed on the graves. Some bring guitars and radios to listen to. Some families will spend the entire night in the cemeteries.
Handmade skeleton figurines, called calacas, are especially popular. Calacas usually show an active and joyful afterlife. Figures of musicians, generals on horseback, even skeletal brides, in their white bridal gowns marching down the aisles with their boney grooms.
The celebration of Los Dias de los Muertos, like the customs of Halloween, evolved with the influences of the Celtics, the Romans, and the Christian holy days of All Saints Day and All Souls Day but with added influences from the Aztec people of Mexico..
Origins of La Purísima
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, realize 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 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.
Washing the plates
A similar tradition may have begun in El Viejo or León during the colonial period. The basilica at El Viejo, site of one of the largest chiefdoms at the onset of the Spanish conquest, is the only national sanctuary of the Virgin Mary in Nicaragua. The celebration begins on November 28, and on December 6 a unique ceremony in Nicaragua is held: “the washing of the plates.”
Under guard at the basilica is the finest example of colonial silversmithing in Nicaragua and perhaps in all of Central America. Though little known, Nicaragua produced silver since the beginning of the colonial era and had extensive silver mines in operation in the latter part of the 18th century.
The altar pieces, retablos, and related sacred items —all made of solid silver— are washed with lemon juice every December 6th by a high church official. In the last few years, that has been Cardinal Obando y Bravo or the Bishop of León, Monsignor Bosco Vivas Robelo.
Whatever the colonial origin of the celebration, there is no doubt that a 19th century papal act greatly encouraged the Mariana tradition as well as the Purísima. In 1854, Pope Pius IX decreed the Immaculate Conception of Mary as part of the official Church dogma. From then on, with official church approval, the Purísima tradition has been a part of Nicaraguan culture and tradition.
Related to La Purísima, the other tradition, called La Gritería, is more boisterous and more common. On December 7th at 6PM heard from different cathedrals and churches is “¿Quién causa tanta alegría?” (Who causes so much happiness?). The response from many people is ‘La Concepción de María’ (The conception of Mary). At that time, in cities and towns people start exploding fireworks and firecrackers. In Granada and the larger cities, it gets so noisy that many tourists might think that a war has just started in Nicaragua. Of course, this also happens Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve.
Mary is the reason for ‘La Gritería’. The virgin is thanked for the miracles. It is a celebration used by people to thank the virgin for miracles and it takes place before the official day. Faithful people decorate altars in their houses in a place were it can be seen from the street. In some neighborhoods you can find more than three altars in just one block.
ChristmasCelebrating Christmas is a mixture of traditional Nicaraguan practices with other elements that have become Christmas icons all over the world. From the last days of November you can see how Christmas symbols take over houses, firms, streets, and many other places. Many families put a Christmas tree in their home decorated with lights and whatever is available. The doors of the home are left open to let bypassers and neighbors see their decorations.
Nativity sets ‘El Nacimiento’ are commonly placed in houses and churches, but also in the parks, or in receptions of commercial buildings. Some people leave the Nativity set without Baby Jesus’ image, Christmas day. Christmas is a family celebration in which many Nicaraguan families gather to enjoy a special dinner.
Santa Claus is a common figure but due to the poverty many families simply buy necessary clothes and shoes for their children as gifts. In other families, children are told to write a letter to Baby Jesus, writing all gifts or special wishes that they want. If there are gifts then they are opened at midnight, during Jesus’ Birthday.
As a general tradition, at midnight, gunpowder explosions are heard everywhere from fireworks and firecrackers. Like all countries, every family celebrates in their own manner within the same traditions. One interesting variation is the ‘Christmas Soup’ prepared mainly in the city of Bluefields. After the official mass, inhabitants of Bluefields invite everyone to enjoy their soups, celebrating Christmas with everyone.
New Years Eve Day
New Years Day is a major holiday for the people of Nicaragua. As with all holidays, it is usually spent with the family but also a time to hang out with friends. An old tradition is to burn the ‘old year’. Some people construct a effigy dressed up with very old clothes and full of gun powder which they hang up outside the home and when the New Year comes, they burn it.
Often, the homes organize a party and they invite many friends. At midnight, in the same way they burned the ‘Old Year’ each family burns fireworks and firecrackers. Then they hug each other, go to dinner, and then begin the first party of the year! Even though many families celebrate New Years Eve at home, discotheques and other places also offer New Year Eve parties’.