Though the sacred day 8 B’atz’ (8 Chuen in Yucatec) is the occasion for a vigorous community celebration in many Guatemalan towns, the beginning of the Mayan New Year or “arrival of the Mam” is a much quieter affair, often a simple family event.
While many communities still practice the tzolk’in of 260 days, the haab or ancient Mayan solar year is much less common. Even among the towns that still honor the solar year, there is a great deal of variation. For example, one way of counting the years would assert that this year (2010) is the year 12 Kej (Manik in Yucatec), and that it began on April 3. In Momostenango, a town that has attracted much anthropological attention because of its highly conservative traditions, this is the year 11 Kej, and it began on Feb 22.
In fact, the local elementary school had staged a colorful festival and talent show in honor of the New Year. When I arrived at the Itzep family home on the evening of Feb 21, Don Rigoberto was still engaged with the events at the school, so I sat in the fading light and chatted with his wife Dona Maria.
As we spoke, we suddenly heard the sound of rain pounding and rattling on the tin roof of the house. This was highly unusual, since February is the height of the dry season in the mountains, and any precipitation at all is rare. Maria found it amusing, since the previous year had been 10 Iq’ (or Ik in Yucatec). She laughed and said, “Lord Ik is the year of wind and rain, so as you can see, he is departing from us in his own special way.”
Soon Don Rigoberto arrived, and I gathered with the family in the main room. Don Rigoberto was not prepared to begin the festivities until the sun had completely set. Many Daykeepers in Momostenango assert that the energy of the coming day does not begin to make its presence felt until after sundown. The energy of the new day grows during the night, and comes into its full glory with the next sunrise.
So we waited until dark. Then the candles and the incense were lighted in the shrine room. We sat down to dinner. In the K’iche’ language, the Lord of the Year is called the Mam, which is the common K’iche’ word for grandfather. Any mature man may be addressed as “tat,” while “mam” more specifically refers to one’s grandfather. There are several traditional foods served during the arrival of the Mam. One of them is a special tamale called the tayuyo. This rather impressive-looking dish was made of alternating layers of black corn and white corn. According to the Maya, there are four colors of corn – red, black, white and yellow. These also correspond to the four directions, the four elements, and the four races of humankind. In this particular ceremony, the white layers symbolized heaven, the sky, and the male principle, while the black layers symbolized the rich loam of earth, the spirit of Mother Earth, the feminine principle. A simple tamale became a kind of cosmogram uniting heaven and earth, male and female.
We were also served a cup of a cornmeal drink called atole, though the special recipe used for the Arrival of the Mam is a very ancient one, and not much like ordinary atole. It is made entirely without spices, and can take “some getting used to” for many Western palates.
When dinner was done, we made our way into the shrine room. With Rigoberto and Maria, their four children, and their housemate with her young child, as well as the visiting outsider (me), it was a bit of a tight squeeze.
Now it was time for another mixture of masculine and feminine energies. Don Rigoberto sat in his chair while all the women in the family lined up. One by one they approached him. He tied a red thread around their right wrists and another one around their left ankles. Then Dona Maria took the shaman’s chair, and the men lined up. One by one, we approached her and were tied with a red thread around our left wrists and another one around our right ankles. Since red is the color of life and vitality, this little ritual has the effect of providing us with special power at this most powerful time of the year, as well as mixing the night and day, yin and yang, female and male polarities of the universe.
After we all succeeded in squeezing close to the altar for prayer, the evening ritual was nearly finished.
The final touch in the proceedings was “setting a chair for the Mam.” An empty chair is left sitting overnight in front of the family shrine, so that the Grandfather or Lord of the New Year may enter, sit down, and make himself comfortable.
By the time I walked home to my lodgings, the last traces of Lord 10 Iq’ had disappeared altogether. The rain was gone and the stars were shining.