Maya Day – A Celebration of Identity

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Tags: BelizeculturedancingEventsMayaMaya CultureToledo District
A woman in traditional Mayan dress.

When you think of the Maya, you probably think of the brilliant architects and astronomers who lived centuries ago, correct?  You may have read about the Maya in a history book, or even visited some of their many archaeological sites around Belize and its neighboring countries.  But the Maya are not found only in ruins or history books.  Being a Maya defines a language, a way of life, music, arts, dance and food, drinks, beliefs and scared rituals, all of which are alive to this day.

Tumul K’in Center of Learning, a nongovernmental Mayan high school located deep in the mountains of Belize’s southern district of Toledo, cleverly fuses Mayan and modern values into a unique practical education in an effort to preserve the Mayan culture in the modern world.  On one day a year the school holds a Maya Day celebration, when all have the opportunity to go beyond the books and embrace and celebrate Mayan traditions and culture for a day.  Everyone is invited!  The date of the celebration is different each year, chosen on a Nawal of Prosperity, a day of enlightenment and tranquility.  This year Maya day will fall on March 26th.

Traditional Mayan rituals.

Leading up to this day there are several competitions, games and cultural dances amongst the local Mayan communities.  All communities strive to bring home the prize trophy and money.  The most exciting event is the ‘fire dance’, a dance where the players play with a burning ball and try to score.  Closer to the event the Belizean Mayas welcome their counterparts from Guatemala, to prepare and perform several traditional dances, including the Chachay and the Deer or Cortes Dance.  The preparation for these dances is a time of sacred ritual where men are kept separated from any contact with their wives or girlfriends.  The grand finale of the dance is performed on Maya Day, where all have the opportunity to witness the dance in person.  You can get a taste of the beauty of the dances in the videos below.  The first shows a Deer Dance performed in the city of Santa Cruz, in the Toledo district, in 2011.  Further below there is a 30 min documentary about that performance, and the efforts of the dancers to revive and preserve the ritual Deer Dance in Santa Cruz.

The Maya Day celebration commences with a ritual for the red, black white and yellow, 4 colors representing the four pillars of the earth, the integration of humanity with nature, and the 4 universal elements of fire, earth, water and wind.  In addition to traditional dances, the rest of the celebration includes live Mayan marimba music competitions, and other competitions for various activities which are part of daily Mayan life.  You might see competitions for tortilla making, caldo eating, corn grinding, pepper eating, and firewood chopping, and traditional games such as the greasy pole and the greasy pig!  If you have an interest in Mayan culture the Maya Day celebration in Toledo is your best opportunity to to witness and celebrate both Mayan traditions and the modern Mayan culture that exists today in Belize.