During the Christmas season in León I clapped for giant dancing puppets, went to an evening Mass, sang hymns to the Virgin María by candlelight, and was bombarded by booming advertisements from truck-mounted stereos for Huge sales! and Special holiday offers!
The shopping streets around the main market in León were literally overflowing—bright plastic toys, flimsy kitchen tools, tin decorations, and multicolored knickknacks spilled out of storefronts and across the sidewalk into the street. There was barely room for one car to pass through, so pedestrians, bicyclists and buses jockeyed for space to squeeze, or dash, through.
Fake Christmas trees were ubiquitous in shops and homes in the center of León, some natural-looking in dark green, most bright blue or silver or white, and surprisingly expensive: from $10-$50. Christmas music blared from stores: in the air-conditioned, fluorescently-modern supermarket in the city center I heard “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas” multiple times, in both Spanish and English!
Yet, in some kind of answer to the mountains of cheap plastic goods, the broad plaza next to the cathedral featured rows of traditional toys, made by hand out of straw and wood in Masaya. (A yellow wooden “Nissan” or “Toyota” could be yours for a mere 20 córdobas, one dollar!) Families strolled through the parque central at night to enjoy the lights of the crèche and to watch the dancing puppets of la Gigantona.
La Gigantona y el Pepe Cabezón is a uniquely Nicaraguan Christmastime tradition. In León multiple Gigantonas could be located on any given evening by listening for the drums that accompany the puppets’ wild dancing. Troupes of kids crisscross the city, stopping at houses and acting out the story of la Gigantona y el Pepe for 10 córdobas, about 50 cents. The larger-than-life-size papier-mâché puppets represent a giant Spanish woman (hence la Gigantona) and the short but smart indigenous man, el Pepe (hence his moniker cabezón, big-headed.) The story symbolizes the mixing of Spanish and Catholic traditions and indigenous belief. The Gigantona shakes wildly back and forth as the Pepe bobs his huge head up and down. Meanwhile, another child recites coplas, poetic sayings, in a loud voice to the crowd.
I was fascinated by the kids in the troupes, lugging the heavy puppets and drums up and down the streets, with improvised costumes made of a sweatshirt hung on a coat hanger or an old suit jacket for Pepe, his head made out of a woven market basket turned upside-down and painted.
One night at the beginning of December I heard singing coming from the family whose house I share, the voices of the women occasionally joined by the two young sons. Some songs were sweet and melodic, others more animated, where they clapped hands to accompany their voices. For nine nights they gathered to sing and pray to the candlelit altar of María in the dining room. One of the holiest days of the year for Catholics in Nicaragua, the 8th of December is when they celebrate the Immaculate Conception of María.
I went to record their music, touched by the clarity of their a capella voices. I recorded a few songs, then Carola passed me the songbook and I joined them, the boys laughing at me as I stumbled over the words.