Guatemala // Petén //

San José’s sacred skulls


San José is famous for its two fiestas. The first, to mark the patron saint’s day, is held between March 10 and 19 and includes parades and fireworks plus an unusual, comical-looking costumed dance during which a girl (la chatona) and a horse skip through the village streets.

The second fiesta is distinctly more pagan, with a unique mass, celebrated in the church on Halloween and a festival that continues on into November 1 – All Saint’s Day. For the evening service, one of three venerated human skulls (thought to be the remains of early founders of the village, though some claim they were Spanish missionaries) is removed from its glass case inside the church and positioned on the altar for the ceremony. Afterwards, the skull is carried through the village by black-clad skull bearers, accompanied by children dressed in traditional Itza traje and hundreds of devotees, many carrying candles and lanterns. The procession weaves through the streets, stopping at around thirty homes, where prayers are said, chants made and the families ask for blessings. In each home, a corn-based drink called ixpasá is consumed and special fiesta food is eaten, part of a ceremony that can take over a day to complete.

The exact origin of the event is unclear, but it incorporates a degree of ancestor reverence (or even worship). After all the houses have been visited, the skull is returned to its case in the church, where it remains, and can be seen with the other two skulls, for the rest of the year.

Boats from Flores head across the lake to San José (and back) on the night of the fiesta.

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