Last week I went around the corner to buy baby wipes and saw Jesus Christ coming down the street.
I didn’t get the baby wipes—you can’t buy those on the street corner pharmacies or in the corner stores, which are called pulperias here in Granada, Nicaragua. You have to go to the big American-style supermarket on the outskirts of town.
And I wasn’t having a visitation by the Lord. It’s just that we happened to be in day six or so of a nine day celebration of the Virgin Mary that is unique to Nicaragua, part of which involves a statue of the Virgen gracing an altar that’s been set up in the middle of a different street each of the nine crazy nights. Two of the altar-decorating volunteers were simply carrying a statue of Jesus Christ (I have to use his full name/title so that you don’t confuse him with some neighborhood guy named Jesus) to that night’s tableau.
The official nine-day-long event is called the “Purisima” because it all celebrates the Immaculate Conception, which, contrary to the belief of many non-Catholics, does not refer to the conception of Jesus Christ by Mary but the conception of Mary by her mama, Ana. The Orthodox Church does not believe that the Virgin Mary, whom we call the Panagia, the All-Holy One, was born as a result of immaculate conception. But we do believe that She is awesome (I mean that both literally and colloquially) so I jumped at the chance to celebrate; in fact, Amalia and I attended 8 out of 9 nights of the Purisima.
Since we don’t have an equivalent word or celebration in English, I explained it to my friends and relatives at home as VirginMaryPalooza. I meant that with no disrespect. I am a huge fan of the Virgin Mary and of her festivals worldwide; I even wrote my undergraduate these in Folklore and Mythology on the Dormition of the Virgin Mary as it’s celebrated in the town of Kassiopi on the Greek island Corfu. It’s just that this multi-day event resembles a holy rock concert more than anything else, at least in the way it’s celebrated in Granada, where everyone gets together in the street to sing catchy songs celebrating the VM to the tune of marimba music, while vendors sell candied apples and cotton candy, and the person leading the singing often punctuates the event by yelling, “Let’s give a big hand to the Virgen,” at which point we all clap wildly.
In other towns, people hold Purisima celebrations in their homes, invite friends, and give them goody bags (often bearing an image of the Virgen) to hold the traditional gifts they pass out with each song: tambourines or noisemakers, fans, local candies, juice, fruit, and other delicious treats often presented in tupperware, sometimes with the Virgen’s image on it. I love nothing more than the mixing of the sacred and the mundane (I say the more moments of awe in a day, the better), so I am delighted by my collection of Virgin Mary kitchenware.
But in Granada, every afternoon the Virgin Mary statue is removed from the Catedral and carried in a procession involving brass bands to Her altar for the evening, where people venerate Her and sing songs for several hours, at which point She is put on a float surrounded by girls dressed as angels holding symbols of Nicaragua’s bounty—grapes, fish, whatnot—and they all ride back to the Catedral.
Local tradition here holds that the celebration started when women washing clothes on the banks of Lake Nicaragua were amazed to see a statue of Mary wash up on the shore; apparently it had been lost when the English attacked a town along the river San Juan. Many Greek churches are built on sites where missing icons pop up, so this part of the legend makes me feel right at home.
Everywhere in Nicaragua December 7th is called the Griteria, the Shouting. The 8th is the feast day of the Immaculate Conception, so it’s almost your last chance to scream the call-and-response refrain that is heard in between songs and big hands for the Virgen: Quien causa tanta alegría? La concepion de Maria! Which means, what’s the cause of all this happiness? The conception of Mary!
Aside from the night the altar graced on our street, I never stayed up late enough to watch the float take off (my toddler gets mean at about 8 pm). But I saw the altar 8 out of 9 nights and each one was different and gorgeous, meticulously produced by the neighborhood.
The whole thing made me love Nicaragua and the Nicaraguans even more, because these are people who manage to imbue every day—and even some of their Tupperware—with wonder, joy, and marimba music.
I know some clergy who would not be pleased to see such a fuss made over the Virgen, who would argue that really it’s all about Jesus Christ and all the other saints are but links to Him. But to me it makes perfect sense that women relate to a Saint who is a Mother, and that many of the faithful who feel too imperfect to reach out to Jesus Christ directly would want to devote some of their religious affection to Her.
And I know some killjoys who would say that it’s a shame that citizens of a poor country spend money creating altars and floats. To them I would like to say that man cannot live on rice and beans alone. Occasionally, you need some cotton candy and candied apples, and art and music. To stand in the midst of the Purisima crowd literally singing their hearts out is to be in the presence of love and joy and faith.
And I’m sure that there are people out there who think that saints don’t belong on Tupperware. (Because no other December holiday has been commercialized, has it?) But to me, that’s where the magic of the Purisima lies, that it takes nine days, night and morning (did I mention that at 4 or 5 am, the Virgen statue is taken to see the neighborhood where the altar will be later, so there’s yet another procession complete with homemade fireworks and brass bands? I skipped all of those).
As the days wear on you become used to seeing saints coming down the street and people singing on the sidewalk, and children begin to look like they’re angels, whether they’re wearing a white toga and wings or not. And not being able to find baby wipes suddenly doesn’t seem like a crisis after all, not when there are songs to sing and a Virgen to worship. I suspect that after these nine days, many of the participants carry some of the happiness and spiritual uplift they felt during the Purisimas with them. Because at no time does the bandleader take the mike and announce “the Virgen has left the building.” She may be back in the Catedral, but Her songs continue to echo.