Giant kites celebrate the dead in Guatemala

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Guatemala residents honor their dead by flying giant kites

The largest can be more than 40 feet in diameter

CNN  — 

Huge, colorful kites are soaring over the skies of Guatemala as hundreds of people gather in cemeteries to honor their dead.

This tradition, which takes place on the first and second of November of each year, is part of the All Saints’ Day celebrations in the neighboring towns of Santiago Sacatepequez and Sumpango.

Many countries worldwide mark the Christian festival with family gatherings and silent prayers. But Guatemala’s residents transform their country into a land of flying colors with their Barriletes Gigantes festival, which translates to “giant kites” in English.

Enormous kites, some more than 40 feet in diameter, are painted by hand throughout the year and flown over the graves of family members while flowers are strewn on the ground below. Festivalgoers share their favorites on social media.

Tourists from around the world come to the festival, which is one of Guatemala’s main cultural events and dates back to the pre-Colombian era before the arrival of European influences on the American continent.

Back then, the colorful kites represented the union of the underworld and the land of the living.

“The weavings and kites are important cultural symbols and tied to specific ethno-linguistic Mayan identity in Guatemala, with designs depicting specific family stories, including, at times, government oppression and economic conditions ,” wrote Michael K. Steinberg, an associate professor at the University of Alabama, in a report about Guatemala’s traditions.

The day eventually evolved to become part of the All Saints Day celebrations.

But nowadays the messages displayed in the kites are not meant as messages to the departed.

“The motifs used in the kites do not correspond in any way to some sort of symbolism used communicate with the dead,” said the Cultural Development Association of Santiago (ASODEC) in a statement.

Instead, the kites are used to promote feelings of peace and companionship for the living.

Several people are needed to launch the heavy kites, which are usually made from bamboo, cloth and paper. Young men and children join together in teams to launch them, then compete amicably with each other to see whose kite can remain in the as long as possible.

Locals cheer for their favorite teams and fill the air with sounds of joy as they remember departed relatives and friends.