NicaNotes: Sandinista Party Keeps La Purísima More Alive Than Ever

By Jorge Capelan

Translated by Nan McCurdy

Thanks to the Sandinista Revolution for preserving and rescuing one of the most democratic and popular expressions of Nicaraguan culture, La Purísima, in honor of the Virgin Mary, which is celebrated between November 28 and December 8 with a climax on December 7 with La Gritería, the most popular holiday of the year for most Nicaraguans.

Although it is a Catholic holiday, almost all Nicaraguans, regardless of their faith, participate at some point in this celebration, especially on December 7 at La Gritería, when beautiful altars with flowers of the season are made in many homes to honor the Virgin, singing in her honor and distributing sweets to visitors.

In La Gritería, groups of adults, and especially children, go from house to house shouting at the altars “What causes so much joy? The conception of Mary!” and receiving the sweets they usually keep in bags to enjoy later. On the other days of the celebration, prayers to the Virgin are organized in which songs are sung and sweets are also distributed.

In reality, the celebration of La Purísima is the purest expression of Nicaraguan religious syncretism – the combining of different theological, mythological and cultural beliefs. The indigenous is represented by the type of sweets and toys that are distributed, historically products made from corn, coconut or native fruits, as well as toys and handicrafts: Indian headdresses, chischiles or rattles, cane flutes, and so on.

Another element of the indigenous tradition is the abundance of firecrackers and the like, which although imported from the West, is very popular among Mesoamerican peoples. There are theories that the Maya already knew about the use of gunpowder thousands of years ago, but this is of secondary importance: The symbolism of fireworks burning is evident when you know the reality of these Mesoamerican lands full of volcanoes, especially in the case of Nicaragua.

It is also important to highlight another element of La Purísima: the celebration of solidarity and love. “The tradition of La Purísima is a tradition of solidarity, because it is about giving, giving to those who come to sing to the Virgin: whatever the family can give – a lemon, a banana, a piece of sugarcane or candy or fudge; a rattle, a whistle. We give in the name of Mary and we do it always invoking protection and blessing for Nicaraguan families. Mary of Peace and Mother of the Nicaraguans,” said Vice-President Rosario Murillo in a recent speech.

While festivities in honor of the Immaculate Conception of Mary are celebrated in many countries of the world, La Gritería is a native Nicaraguan holiday that emerged in the 1700s. Historically it has been celebrated with greater fervor in the cities of León, Granada and El Viejo, although today it has spread throughout the country.

In La Gritería homes, even the most humble such as the Indigenous Community of Sutiaba in León, residents make altars to the Virgin offering a present to those who come to sing stanzas of some of the many songs dedicated to Mary that for generations were created for Purisima. The presents are sweets, fruits and autoctonous crafts.

Although class distinctions were always present in the celebration of La Purísima, with the wealthiest classes making exclusive altars in which products were also distributed to special guests, the popular character existed despite the fact that families had to make extraordinary sacrifices to pay for it. Families saved for months, and still do.

While the people clung with all their faith and energy to “their” Purísima, even in times when illiteracy was the norm and early death from preventable diseases was the most likely fate for the majority of the population, it was the Sandinista Popular Revolution that triumphed on July 19, 1979, that helped ensure that La Purísima remain in the hands of the Nicaraguan people.

Already in the 1980s, and contrary to what the U.S. propaganda of the time said (and continues to say today), that Sandinista Nicaragua persecuted religious freedom, the government did everything possible to maintain the popular character of La Purisima. For example, it ensured that products used in it, such as oranges, sugar cane, sweets or handicrafts were not scarce and were affordable. Also at that time many mayors began to organize public altars of La Purísima in which gifts were distributed to all the population.

With the electoral defeat of 1990, the popular nature of La Purisima was badly weakened by the neoliberal policies implemented for 16 years by right-wing governments. The popular sectors, affected by unemployment and poverty, were less and less able to afford their altars while the rich made novenas (nine days in prayers in honor of the Virgin) exclusively for “ladies of the lineage”, with “fine” gifts, and so on.

Many times, for La Gritería, upper-middle class or upper class houses organized ostentatious altars with strident music and threw candy or toys from their patios to the poor that crowded outside in the dark street in an offensive spectacle of organized denigration.

Since the Sandinistas returned to power in 2007, they have promoted the policies of the 1980s now with 21st century conditions with Nicaragua heavily urbanized and (for better or worse) with other consumption patterns, different from those of three decades ago.

The altars to the Virgin are promoted in all the municipalities as well as the novenas and the Gritería itself in hospitals, schools and workplaces. In many places, workers make a common fund to celebrate their Purísimas by inviting family and friends.

In the case of Managua a beautiful place to visit from late November to New Year’s Eve is Bolívar Avenue downtown which has dozens of large altars to the Virgin and hundreds of kiosks that offer all kinds of food at affordable prices for all families.

The most recent novelty, in recent years, is the celebration of Water Purísimas in which the image of the Virgin is transported in all types of boats, from passenger ferries to humble fishing boats. These Purísimas are currently carried out in the lakes, large rivers and ports of Nicaragua.

The government guarantees the products for La Purisima at affordable prices in all markets. This has been especially important since the defeat of last year’s coup attempt. One of the reactions to the coup was to give greater participation in the country’s economic decision-making to the family, associative, cooperative, and community sectors of the economy. These sectors account for most of the employment, disposable income and the generation of wealth in the country.

To all this we must add the efforts made by the Sandinista Government to support artisans, not only with access to raw materials, etc., but also with training and advice to develop the traditional products they offer, from food to toys, decorations and images for altars.

Even efforts to promote national design, such as the Nicaragua Diseña platform, which promotes and fosters the creative and entrepreneurial economy through design, art and fashion, are embedded in this philosophy of starting from and strengthening Nicaragua’s own cultural roots, including celebrations in honor of the Virgin.

The essence of La Purisima has not been lost, it is still alive and is a fundamental part of being Nicaraguan. It is the celebration of solidarity and of the community in permanent construction that is Nicaragua. 

Today (and for several decades now) too many plastic objects are distributed, too many industrial juices and plastic cups of Jello, but always, infallible, is the corn chicha drink, sugar cane, bananas, the gofio (candy made from corn) or the coyolito (sweet from the fruit of a palm), as well as the flute, the rattle, or any of the traditional artisan toys of La Purisima. Without these, no Purísima would merit the name.

Amid the aberrant patterns of consumption imposed by the world market, the Sandinista government manages to keep the essence of this festival vigorous and give it more vitality than ever in the face of a twenty-first century that is going to need much solidarity and love to save Mother Earth.

The indigenous resistance that gave root to the Virgin with her corn, her chischiles and her abundant fireworks, is still alive in the policies promoted by the Sandinista Front, a political instrument of the best of all the people of blessed and always free Nicaragua.

Original Spanish:



By Nan McCurdy

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