My eyes grew wide when I noticed the chicken, and I motioned to Reece furiously to make sure he saw it. He did. “Are they going to kill it?” I mouthed to him, silent but urgent. He gave me a knowing nod. If an authentic cultural experience is what we wanted, we were about to get it.
We’d ventured into the highlands surrounding San Cristóbal de las Casas, where descendants of the ancient Maya still reside, to get a glimpse into their unique lifestyle and traditions. San Juan Chamula, the main village the Chamulan people, was just thirty minutes and yet a world away from the streets we’d been strolling for the past week.
Upon arriving in the small town we were immediately greeted by the Templo de San Juan, the grand church overlooking its main plaza. Stark white with bright blue and green accents, it’s a picturesque structure dating back nearly 500 years. But it really makes its impression once you walk through its imposing wooden doors.
It’s a large church, made to feel even more so by the complete lack of pews. Worshipers kneel on the ground, protected by the thick layer of pine needles that coat the entire interior. Literally thousands of candles burn on every surface, illuminating the darkened sanctuary in a flickering light. The wax and pine mingle to evoke the familiar scent of Christmas, punctuated by incense smoke hanging heavy in the air.
Tourists are welcome in the Templo de San Juan with a small donation, as long as no photos are taken of the sacred rituals taking place inside. We parked ourselves as inconspicuously as possible to observe a small slice of the daily life here. The family of four nearest to me was preparing for their prayer ritual, lining up no less than a hundred tall slim candles in rows in front of them, stuck to the ground with melted wax. They were just one of a few dozen families arranging a similar set-up, the overall effect (and incredible fire hazard) pretty astonishing.
Once the father had finished lighting all of the candles, he crouched to his knees and began a melodic chant that would go on for over an hour. His stout wife gathered a cushion of pine needles to rest on, her long adorned braids hanging nearly to the floor. Beside her, the daughter clutched a live chicken only halfway concealed by a black plastic bag, stroking its feathers absentmindedly. And the young son stood to the side, his job to re-light each candle that inadvertently blew out throughout the course of the ceremony.
The Chamulans believe that burping releases evil spirits from the soul, explaining the cans of soda ceremoniously lined up beside the rows of candles. The father would pause in his songs of devotion only long enough to sip from a bottle of mineral water, meanwhile the daughter would steal glances of her smartphone. Good to know the texting obsession knows no borders. A gust of wind would threaten the flames every time someone used the nearby side entrance, and I cringed along with the boy, hoping he wouldn’t have to re-light ALL of the candles again.
As the prayers came to a close, the father asked for the boy’s help in lighting the final row of candles, as mother and daughter untied the twine around the chicken's legs. Dad took the chicken expertly by the feet and wings, and waved it over the fire. Then I watched through a squinted grimace as he and his wife held it upside down together, and he snapped its neck. The wife took the chicken into her lap, and held it close as it took its last frantic kicks. The ceremony was over.
Now the boy cracked open the cans of soda, and the family relaxed together over some evil-spirit-releasing refreshment. The mother’s large purse started jerking wildly and I realized there was a second chicken concealed in there. We left before learning what his fate would be. But I'm guessing he was more fortunate than his purse-mate that day.