Dec 16, 5 years ago

Christmas traditions and festivities in Colombia

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Customs across Colombia vary from region to region, but in general this is how people from this party-crazy country celebrate the festive season.

Christmas Lights - Alumbrados

Houses, apartments, churches, office buildings, streets, parks and gardens up and down the country are lit up like Christmas trees at this time of year. Some neighbourhoods hold contests for the best decorated street, with the winners often receiving a pig to share and consume. The city of Medellin is the jewel in the twinkling crown of Colombia as it puts on a massive display besides the river, along one of the city centre thoroughfares, La Playa Avenue, and at the replica town, Pueblito Paisa. The small towns of the Boyaca department, north of Bogota are also famous for their Christmas displays.

Food

Buñuelos with natilla is a traditional festive dish in Colombia. The cheesy fried dough balls are served up at bakeries all year round as a snack but when they are paired with the solidified corn-custard-pudding, you know the Nativity night is near. Although easy-to-make natilla mixtures can be bought in shops, it is common to see people out on the streets on Christmas Eve with a massive vat of the sweet stuff, over an open fire stirring it with a paddle. Natilla on the stove is a wonderful scent to inhale as it is infused with cinnamon and cloves and sometimes grated coconut and raisins are thrown in for good measure. Pigs in this country drew the short straw when it came to Christmas dinner. Porkers, not turkeys, are butchered during the holiday season – often on sidewalks and patios – the cuts to be shared out among friends, family and neighbours and put in a pot on the next bank holiday.

The Night of the Candles

The Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary is celebrated from sunset on December 7th until sunrise on December 8th. On this night Colombians buy millions of candles and lanterns which are placed in windows and doorways and lit to commemorate the miraculous gestation initiation. It makes a pretty picture.

Nativity scenes – Pesebres

Nativity scenes or pesebres, as they are known locally, can be bought complete or in individual pieces for artsy and crafty families to put together and place somewhere prominent in the home. Once there is a pesebre in the house, the owner can host a novena reading.

Readings of the Christmas Story – Las Novenas

Over the nine days running up to Christmas, families gather in the evening in the house of a particular relative and read the Christmas story. In some places las novenas are read in the front patio of different neighbours in a barrio. Then everyone sings villancicos or Christmas carols and the children receive candy and sweeties.

New Year’s Eve Superstitions

Colombians often see in the New Year surrounded by family, as in many other Spanish-speaking countries. As the gongs sound, people try to swallow 12 grapes and make 12 wishes. It is also tradition for men and women to wear yellow underwear. This is for good luck. Running around the block with a suitcase/duffle bag/backpack is supposed to ensure travel in the coming year. Finally, having lentils or rice in one’s pocket is said to guarantee riches during the next 12 months.

Fireworks

In Colombia, Christmas and New Year’s Eve have to go with a bang, or several. Fireworks are actually illegal and the government issues public safety announcements warning of the dangers but from mid-November until early January, people in their neighbourhoods put on their own pyrotechnic displays. In the run-up to New Year’s Eve, barrio kids take some old clothes, stuff them with rags and fireworks, to make a rag doll which is ignited when the clock strikes twelve. This effigy represents the old year which is dead and gone.

Lead image courtesy of Toni Peters

Toni

An inquisitive traveller who teaches, writes, and takes photos, based in Colombia.

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