The celebration of La Gritería looks like something between trick-or-treating and organized chaos. I do not celebrate Halloween, which is uncommon in my native Britain, but I’ve had some experience with La Purisima, so I had expectations of what was to come when I placed an altar to the Virgin Mary outside my rented home in León and lit a few candles.
At six o’clock sharp on Friday, Dec. 7 rallies of fireworks were sent skywards to pierce the twilight sky with noise and small black explosions. In each of the parks around León, and around all of Nicaragua, families gathered to watch to missiles rise, while small children marched around the streets with cracklers and wooden instruments.
After 10 minutes of solid noise and gusto, everything stopped. Then the families took to the streets with empty burlap sacks and pots. Great swaths of people plied the streets looking for the houses with altars to the Virgin Mary.
Some of the altars were modest, such as the one I put in front of my house, which had nothing more than a statue, flowers, cloth and candles. Other households went overboard and seemed to empty their wallets on decorations. The most impressive offerings occupied an entire room and the front door is left open so the public can stare in amazement.
When the faithful find a home with an altar outside, they rush up to the gate and call out: ¿Quien causa tanta alegría? (Who causes so much happiness?)
The owners of the house respond: La concepción de María! (The Conception of Mary).
Then the sweets are handed out. Some families give out one cordoba caramels or lollipops, while others give frescos, fruits or traditional foods. These gifts are called the “gorra.”
As I lit the candles on my altar, 20 or 30 shouting people immediately rushed over, all crying out to see if I had any thoughts on who causes so much happiness. My friends and I ran around answering them and handing out wrapped sweets. As the first group moved on, another group moved in calling out “Who causes so much happiness?” That went on for another 20 minutes.
In between the groups of Catholic faithful came a few staggering drunks who would call out for agua or shout things in Spanish that I had no chance of understanding. Their friends circled fingers around their heads and called them crazy.
Soon we were out of sweets and were forced to blow out the candles and move the altar back inside for some respite. Meanwhile the family on the other side of the street, whose altar stood 10 feet tall and occupied their entire side garden, were still going strong and continued for another 20 minutes before they ran out of their gorras.
Luckily for the devotees, another house threw open its doors and took over the responsibility for our street. By nine o’clock, people were walking with bulging sacks and pots full of goodies. From the youngest children sitting on their father’s shoulders to the oldest grannies hobbling on canes, everyone was munching on their goodies chasing around desperately to get the last few sweets from the houses that were still handing out gifts.
Elsewhere in León, parties were springing up; a corner of the central plaza, which is under construction, was opened for the crowds to gather around the entrance to the cathedral to see a light show and listen to a full orchestra. The party kept on until the small hours of the morning. The event was broken briefly at midnight for another 10 minutes of fireworks, explosions and sheer noise.
The festival is celebrated throughout Nicaragua and in some other parts of Central America, but its real relevance is in León, where it originates. Celebrated on the night before the feast for the Immaculate Conception, the origins of La Gritería go back to the days of Spanish colonization. The first Gritería is believed to have occurred in 1742 at the San Francisco church in León, where monks from Sevilla brought over their tradition of giving gifts to those who prayed to the Virgin Mary on the night before the feast.
Soon the festival spread to Masaya and Granada, with each city creating its own unique traditions.
The celebration might soon find international admiration. Bosco Vivas, the Roman Catholic Bishop of León, recently presented an application to the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to include the annual celebration on UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage. According to Vivas, the griteria is “complete, with its rites and traditions that merit its becoming part of the patrimony of humanity.”
This application has also found favor from Nicaragua President Daniel Ortega, who instructed his UN ambassador to pursue the claim.
Not everyone supports the application. Managua’s Archbishop Leopoldo Brenes says the festival should not be included on the UNESCO list because it is not a “cultural” event rather an “act of faith.”
That seems hopeful to me. As an outside observer, I doubt if all the participants who came by my house Friday night were active Catholics or were taking part in the event specifically to celebrate the Immaculate Conception. For many, the evening seemed to be more about tradition and culture, an annual celebration with friends and family.
In any case, most people seemed very pleased with their sacks and pots full of goodies. Families beamed with smiles as adults walked hand in hand with their children, and groups of teenage friends ran around with youthful energy.
Even now, as I sit writing this article, the noise of fireworks has resumed, but at this time of year it doesn’t bother me.
David Hutt is a freelance writer from London, UK, who will be on the trail of Latin America during the next year and will be working as a tour guide in León, Nicaragua. Follow his travels and misadventures on his blog, and follow him on twitter @davidhutt1990