The Purísima in Nicaragua
The Purisima is a feast of the Virgin Mary that is celebrated between November 28th and December 8th. The culmination is on December 7th, with the Griteria (shouting). It is the most popular feast of the year for the majority of Nicaraguans.
Managua in the first week of December – In a one-room wooden house, rows of seats are lined up before the statue of the Virgin Mary. A banner hangs across the open entrance, saying, “Barrio William Díaz. The heroes did not just say they were willing to die, they also died”. It is the house of the Sandinista Defense Committee which has been decorated for the celebration of the Purisima, a nine-day devotion to the Virgin Mary. It seems on every street there is a house with its doors wide-open, an altar to the Virgin in sight. The entire country is celebrating the Purisima. In factories, neighborhoods, schools and government ministries, people pray and sing and celebrate their faith and culture in a tradition that all agree is “muy Nicaragüense”.
The PurísimaThe Purisima is a nine-day devotion to the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary which takes place between November 28 and December 6. December 8 is the actual feast of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, or the Purisima, as it is called here. The people have made Mary the patron saint of Nicaragua. At this time, they gather together with families and friends to pray the novena and sing to the Virgin. The Purisima is characterized by its joyfulness. The singing and distribution of fruits, candies and other treats creates a spirit of happiness that builds up throughout the nine-day period. The eighth night is the “gritería” (shouting) and is the most special of all. In mid-afternoon, the children are already gathering in the streets. With bags in their hands, they talk of the treats they will receive. That night children and adults alike go to every house that celebrates the Purisima, yelling out “Quién causa tanta alegría?” (who causes so much joy?) and answering “La concepción de María” (Mary Immaculate!). As the children sing to the Virgin, their neighbors give them a treat and they head off to the next house.
An Expression of the People’s ReligionThe Purisima is a traditional fiesta developed over the years by the people of Nicaragua and it has a certain autonomy from the church hierarchy. Throughout the year, people ask the Virgin for assistance and promise to offer her devotions during the Purisima if their prayers are answered. Each night, people recite the novena to the Virgin, which includes readings from the bible, responses and prayers. Then the singing and distribution of treats begins. Traditionally the celebration has centered around the family. In past years, those families who could afford it would invite other families to celebrate the Purisima, giving out gifts to those who came. Neighbors often competed to see who would give the best and most extravagant celebration. Often very poor families borrowed large sums of money in order to give a Purisima.
Since the victory, the Purisima has become more community-oriented. In many neighborhoods, families continue to prepare their own Purisima, but in addition entire blocks and neighborhoods also organize the celebration. Everyone chips in to buy the decorations and treats, and then they celebrate together. In a number of neighborhoods, the Sandinista Defense Committees (CDS) are organizing the Purisima, which is included in the national program of the CDS. Each neighborhood observes the tradition, using its own creativity and organizational skills. This year the CDS will award a prize to the neighborhood organizing the best Purisima, but extravagance is no longer the criteria. The following examples show the tradition in three different barrios of Managua.
Sierra MaestraA family has invited their relatives and all their neighbors to the Purisima. The celebration has been prepared by two women in the neighborhood who, having more money than the rest, have taken on all the costs. The altar is decorated with delicate white flowers and tiny colorful blinking lights. There is burning charcoal before the altar. The woman giving the Purisima bends over every few minutes to add more incense. On the wall, there is a photo framed in red and black of her son, a young man, perhaps 18 years old. In the lower corner of the picture, there is a photo of Che Guevara. Her son is a hero of the Revolution. He was killed in an ambush along with 23 other boys from the neighborhood who were fighting together.
For over an hour, the singing goes on; each song with its many verses seems to increase the joy and energy in the room. A woman weaves among the neighbors packed into the room, first handing out oranges and sweet limes, then sugar cane and later, bags of candy, fruits soaked in honey and flutes made from brightly painted bamboo poles. The children sing the loudest, almost yelling out the songs whose words they know by heart. The sugar cane and citrus fruit, the white flowers that adorn the altar, all appear in this December season and are special to the Purisima. Special too are the firecrackers which sound throughout the singing and go on throughout the night.
A neighbor explains that the community spirit has increased since the revolution. Before, a family might pray the novena alone or invite some relatives and friends. Now everyone is invited. Other neighbors recall the last years of the dictatorship. Less people celebrated the Purisima then because it was dangerous to be on the street. Some even say that the guard took advantage of the noise of firecrackers in order to shoot people.
Because the Purisima has become a community celebration, it is natural that after the religious ritual, people gather around to speak of their neighborhood and some of the problems they are facing. A member of the CDS health committee explains to a visitor that the stagnant water which has settled in the ruts of the dirt roads can bring disease, but that soon these roads will be paved. She explains, “Before we were ignored. These blocks were not even on the city map. Now they have drawn new maps that include these roads and now they are planning to pave them”.
Ciudad SandinoIn zone 6 of Ciudad Sandino, inside the newly built chapel, the women from the Christian Base Community and a CDS representative are working out last-minute details for the Purisima. Areas of discussion include the collection of funds, church decorations, leaflet distribution, the songs and procession route. Plans are drawn up and the tasks are divided. The CDS will take a door-to-door collection. A promise to the Virgin to hold the Purisima in return for answering a prayer can be fulfilled by participating in and contributing to the community’s Purisima. The committee will decorate the church Tuesday in the afternoon and will ask for help from the neighbors “as an expression of solidarity”.
The meeting ends and those who do not have adult education classes stay after to fold the leaflets announcing the Purisima. Two women comment on the meeting; one points out how everyone is participating and contributing ideas in the meetings now. Her friends nod in agreement saying; “The Virgin Mary blesses us, and each day we are becoming closer to her”.
There are 10 zones in Ciudad Sandino and each gives the Purisima on a different day. The community celebrations are organized by the CDS and by the Christian Base Communities, where these are active. Each night, the statue of the Virgin is brought in procession from the zone to the Ciudad Sandino market. There neighbors recite the novena together. Then the singing and distribution of gifts begins. There is also a musical or dance group presented by the Ministry of Culture.
Zone 6 gives the Purisima on December 2, the anniversary of the deaths of Maura Clark, Dorothy Kazel, Ita Ford and Jean Donovan in El Salvador. Maura lived in Ciudad Sandino for many years. This night the Purisima begins with a Mass in the plaza in memory of her and the three other woman who died at the hands of the security forces in El Salvador. A number of foreigners have come to the plaza to celebrate the Mass and Purisima with Maura’s neighbors. The Mass ends and the procession toward the market begins. The children speak proudly of how they knew Maura. Robert, who sells newspapers, always stopped on his route to talk with Maura, while Mario knew her since he was “this high”.
After reciting the novena, the neighbors carry the statue of Mary through the streets in a procession that grows in number and spirit. Six people are distributing fruits and other treats to over 300 children and 200 adults as they sing and walk from house to house. The sense of joy becomes contagious and accumulates as the procession continues into the night ending at 11 or 12. It is only Wednesday. The celebrations will continue for four more days. Tomorrow night, Junta members are invited to join in the celebrations. Sunday the Purisima novena will end with the blessing of the chapel in the newly built market of Ciudad Sandino.
Barrio Máximo JerezBarrio Máximo Jerez is working class neighborhood in Managua. Here the houses are lined up in neat rows and are built very closely together. Since the victory, the Purisima has been organized by the CDS. CDS block leader Marta explains the Purisima;
“Now the Purisima has a more national character. Everyone celebrates the Purisima together. Here the CDS on each block is organizing the celebrations. Before those who could afford it held Purisima with friends and neighbors, singing and distributing treats. Those who did not have money would recite the novena quietly with their family. Now everyone can celebrate the Purisima together. Before we were divided. I lived here 12 years and did not know many of my neighbors. Now there is unity and a sense of fraternity among us. There are more relationships among people. There is more liberty in that there is more community.
“The Sandinistas respect the religion and traditions of our people. We know that some of the Comandantes don’t believe in God, but they respect and care for their people and participate with us in the Purisima and other religious festivals. Last year, Comandante Tomás Borge came here to sing to the Virgin with us”.
Marta continued to speak of the Purisima as an expression of faith and joyfulness and as a community celebration. For many the celebration is the same as always, only better now because everyone participates together. For Marta, leader in the CDS, the Purisima reflects the profound changes the barrio has undergone in the last few years. She sums it all up saying; “Now we know each other, through the organizations, the health campaigns, the popular militias. In the CDS, we got to know each other. Now we live organized. We feel ourselves united, thanks to God”.
Everyone speaks with special pride of the community Christmas dinner. In the past, each family would pull together its meager resources in order to make the best Christmas dinner possible for their children. Now the community plans a joint Christmas dinner, lining up tables along the sidewalk, pooling their resources to make one big dinner for all the neighborhood children.
In Máximo Jerez, there is the sense that people are observing a tradition with more energy and creativity than ever. These are days of celebration with only one disturbing note: Everyone speaks of the possibility of intervention, how real is the possibility, and when it might come. The mother of William Martínez, hero after whom the neighborhood plaza is named, speaks of how the Purisima is special for the children. She points to two children saying, “When you see how many children there are and they’re so innocent, so young; they only know how to say ‘I’m hungry’. And when you know that if there’s an intervention, not only we adults will die, but also the children, that makes you very conscious of what an intervention means”.
Different PerspectivesThe way in which different people experience the Purisima this year is influenced by the way in which the revolution affects them. For some, the Purisima is not like it used to be and something has been lost. For instance, two woman speak of this year’s Purisima in Granada. “This year the Purisima in Granada is going to be sad. There is no money to make a Purisima like we had before. Before, some blocks spent up to U.S. $1,000 in fireworks. They would write the Virgin Mary’s name in fireworks. Now some of the people who gave the best Purisima feel resentful about the revolution and no longer want to give them. Others have left. Before the elegant celebration was considered the best and won the prize. Now if you give an elegant Purisima, they may call you bourgeois. Maybe that’s another reason why people are not motivated to celebrate the Purisima this year”.
In sectors of Nicaragua there was a certain extravagance and grandeur in the celebration of the Purisima that is no longer encouraged in Nicaragua.
The Religion of the PeopleThe theology of the Purisima is and has been a very traditional one. In some Christian communities, the people are beginning to enrich the image of Mary. They speak of Mary as a very poor woman who had to take great social risks within her society to fulfill her role as the mother of Jesus. While many have begun to discuss this interpretation, it has not yet influenced significantly the celebration of the Purisima.
The Latin American church and its theologians have come to a renewed appreciation of the people’s religious expression. Since the 1960’s Latin American theologians have attempted to overcome the old division between what was called “popular religiosity” and intellectual faith. They have devoted great attention to the people’s religious rituals, attempting to deepen their understanding of these rituals and work with the people to enrich them.
In Nicaragua, the Purisima comes from the people rather than from the “institutional church”. As Nicaraguans have made the Purisima part of their church, they are now making it an integral part of their revolution. Here we have included only a few examples of the many unique expressions of the Purisima in Nicaragua. Government offices and ministries, schools, factories and markets also set time aside to pray and sing to the Virgin each day.
In communities throughout the countryside and city, Nicaraguans are celebrating the Purisima, with renewed enthusiasm. The religious ritual of sharing and the expression of community now take on a more profound character as they reflect a new way of life emerging in Nicaragua.