In many parts of the world, December is known as a time of joy and sharing, but in Nicaragua this joy is strengthened. Purísima
The hubbub floods the Nicaraguans and with it the streets and skies. Throughout the month you can hear many songs, rockets, bombs and fireworks. This happiness and good wishes are reflected in the face of every Nicaraguan and it’s due to the many celebrations that take place on this date, ranging from international traditions to local religious festivities, some even as important as Christmas. On this occasion we will be talking about a traditional celebration of the Catholic people with various peculiarities that make it unique in the world. This religious tradition is deeply rooted in Nicaraguan culture and is one of the most important and distinctive dates of the country. We are talking about “La Purisima”.
“La Purísima” is a religious celebration of Catholic origin that takes place in December with special attention on December 7th when it’s celebrated “La Gritería” on the eve of the “Day of the Immaculate Conception of Mary” celebrated worldwide by Catholics on December 8th. It is also called “very pure Conception of Mary” and, in fact, the name “Purísima” is the Spanish translation of “very pure”. All this refers to the “Virgin Mary” mother of Jesus Christ. “The Immaculate Conception” is a dogma of Catholic faith (or belief) proclaimed on December 8th, 1854 by Pope Pio IX in the bull Ineffabilis Deus. This dogma declares that, by a special grace of God, unlike all other human beings, Mary was not reached by the original sin that we all bring for being descendants of Adam and Eve, on the contrary, she was free from all guilt from the first moment of her conception.
The Immaculate Conception is the patron saint of Nicaragua and other countries with a big catholic community as Portugal, Spain, several countries of Central America and others of South America. In Nicaragua it is a very important day but the way of celebrating varies and extends throughout the month. Before continuing it is important to clarify some things that can be confused:
- “The day of the Immaculate Conception” is celebrated worldwide on December 8th by the Catholic community, including Nicaragua where it is a national holiday. Its origin goes back to the year 1854 when the bull was proclaimed, nevertheless, in several countries like Spain it was already celebrated in 1644.
- “La Purísima” is celebrated in Nicaragua throughout December and its origin is attributed to the city of León in the century XVIII in colonial times.
- “La Gritería” is celebrated in Nicaragua on December 7th and its origin is attributed to the city of León in 1857, when Monsignor Gordiano Carranza, from the San Felipe church, invited people to raise altars house by house to celebrate the virgin.
- There is also another celebration of similar characteristics called “La Gritería Chiquita” and it’s celebrated on August 14th in León.
- “La Lavada de la Plata” or “Washing of the Silver” is celebrated on December 6th in Chinandega and its origin also dates back to the Colony.
After the first Spanish conquistadors, the Franciscan friars arrived in the country and they brought with them new religious beliefs. Specifically, in the convent San Francisco in Leon in 1742 these friars began to pray with people the novena and to distribute sweets and little gifts to the prayers, but some time later, there was too many people at the convent and the friars had to ask them to go home for praying to the virgin. Since then, the house-to-house prayers known today as “La purísima” started. Nevertheless, some documents and historians assure that by 1675 the Purísima was already celebrated in the fortress of the immaculate conception in El Castillo, Rio San Juan.
Both “La Purisima” and “La Gritería” are unique festivities in Nicaragua and each one is celebrated in a different way but with the same objective: Pray and sing to the virgin for her intercession to Jesus and God for our salvation. To differentiate them we can say that the first one is more private than the second one, but both have the same objective and, if we may say so, they must have the following “elements”: Altars, songs, prayers, “gorras” and gunpowder.
The people who want to celebrate “La Purisima” are hosts or homeowners who assemble and display a beautiful altar with flowers, candles and ornaments with the image of the Immaculate Conception. The host invites his family, neighbors and friends to a prayer that can be any day of December, even in late November or early January. During the prayer the guests should sing to the Virgin the traditional “Marian chants”. Most of these songs are properly Nicaraguan and many of them are legacy of the composer from Masaya, Alejandro Vega Matus. One of the most popular songs of this date but not of Nicaraguan origin is “Del cielo ha bajado”, known internationally as “Ave de Lourdes” that is originally from Lourdes, France.
During the Purísima the hosts go outside the house to explode “triquitracas”, “cargacerradas”, rockets, fireworks or any type of gunpowder. These are small bombs that are used to further encourage the celebration. While the guests sing, the “Gorra” or toast takes place. It is not a common toast, but the host distributes traditional Purisima gifts to its guests, including national cajetas (toffees), gofios, whistles and other things. Currently it is common to receive sugar cane, fruits, toys, even Nacatamal and other national foods or desserts. The variety of gifts has grown so much that nowadays you receive candies, plastic rags, glasses, handbags, wooden musical instruments such as maracas, matracas, whistles and many other things.
This tradition has transcended borders, in countries like Costa Rica and USA, where there is a large Nicaraguan community, hundreds of Nicaraguans continue the tradition. This tradition is so important that even many national companies, transnationals companies and even government institutions celebrate the Purísima on December. In spite of being constitutionally lay, the government also celebrates the Purísima through the different ministries making majestic altars in the well-known Bolivar avenue in Managua, where the earthquake of 1972 caused more damage. This has been done over the last few years and has become a small tradition.
The idea of “La Gritería” is the same, make and decorate an altar for singing to the virgin, but this time open to the public. The hosts decorate their altars in the porches, terraces or entrances of the houses and from 6:00 pm of December 7th they open the doors for anyone to come in and sing at home to the virgin. Just the same as in the Purísima, while the people sing the homeowners share the traditional gifts of the “Gorra” and explode gunpowder.
In Managua it is common to see that in the neighborhoods families, neighbors and friends get together to go out massively to the streets to look for altars and sing to the virgin. In some neighborhoods you may appreciate up to 4 altars by block. In Granada, it is celebrated a little differently. The altar is not by home but it is by district and they assemble an altar that represents them. Here processions are done from altar to altar and the “Gorra” is not common.
León, the original city of this tradition, is one of the destinations where you can enjoy the most this festivity. You can enjoy “The gigantona” dance, altars are very beautiful, creative and you can notice the effort that each home put in decorating for the virgin. Hundreds of people come from all over the country to sing to the virgin and tour the picturesque streets of this beautiful and historic city.
Lavada de la Plata
In Chinandega the party is lived with greater devotion, inclusive, a noon “Gritería” is carried out, but the greatest attraction begins on December 6th with the traditional “Lavada de la plata” at the “Basilica Menor Nuestra Señora del Trono”, in El Viejo. At the end of the traditional mass at 9:00 a.m., the image of the virgin is descended from her dressing room and at that moment begins the washing of pieces of silver and gold that symbolize the soul cleansing of the peregrine. That same image of the basilica, which is descended once a year, was in the hands of St. Teresa of Jesus and was brought to the country in 1562 by her brother Pedro Alonso Sánchez de Cepeda y Ahumada.
All these traditions, “Gritería”, “Purísima” and “Lavada de la Plata” take us back to the time of La Colonia and have great significance for Nicaraguan culture especially for the Catholic people. For these dates you cannot forget to visit the most important and traditional sites to be part of this celebration. You can start the morning of December 6th in El Viejo, Chinandega, celebrating the “Lavada de la Plata”, then enjoy at the same place the noon Gritería. Next day you can visit León or the neighborhoods of Managua where the shouting is more crowded. The same December 7th you can take a look to the altars of the Bolivar avenue in Managua. Other places where you can stay on December 7th are Granada or Masaya where it is also celebrated with great joy. Very important, from now on when someone asks you “Who causes so much joy?” You must respond with joyfulness: “The conception of Mary!”