Upon arriving in Colombia at the end of November, we were intrigued to see what the festive season would be like there. As a strongly Catholic country, we expected Christmas to be an important feature of the Colombian calendar. Nevertheless we were not prepared for the extent to which it took over the entirety of December, and we were pleasantly surprised by the distinct nature of the country’s traditions. Here is a rundown of the way in which Colombians celebrate Christmas; unsurprisingly, this nation of party-goers does not do it by halves.
Es Diciembre: el Mes de la Fiesta!
One thing that’s very specific to Colombia, and different to how we celebrate Christmas in Western countries, is the importance of the entire month of December, not just the few days surrounding Christmas Day. Admittedly nowadays in the West, Christmas seems to begin the day after Hall0ween, when the high street shops and TV adverts decide to launch their long and drawn out practice in consumer brainwashing. But in Colombia, December truly is an important month in its entirety, and for cultural reasons rather than commercial ones. There is even a whole musical genre in Colombia called ‘Decembrinas’; songs which aren’t even necessarily Christmas-related, rather expressing the pure joy and happiness that is associated with this party-filled month.
Los Alumbrados: A Controversial Custom
Across Colombia, and especially in Medellin where we spent December, the 30th November is almost as big a party as New Years Eve, as Colombians welcome in the start of December with fireworks, gunpowder and drinking, and the cities officially switch on their Christmas lights, known in Spanish as ‘Alumbrados’. The Medellin lights are famous across the country for their extravagance and beauty, and they certainly are impressive, although you still come across a few Western-influenced reindeers and snowflakes, looking rather incongruous in the year-round 25 degrees weather with which the city is blessed.
We spoke to many Paisas (the name for people from Antioquia, of which Medellin is capital) who were very critical of the Alumbrados celebrations. They told us that many people get seriously hurt from the gunpowder and that the mindless debauchery of the 30th November overrides the traditional sentiments of the festive period.
This year, the divisive tradition did not take place. On 30th November 2016, an aeroplane crash just outside the city led to the tragic deaths of 71 passengers, meaning that the lights, festivities and fireworks were postponed. Amongst the dead were the Brazilian Chapecoense football team, who were on their way to play one of Colombia’s top teams, Atletico National from Medellin, in the final of the Copa Sudamerica. The collective grief that the city felt for young lives lost was beautiful to witness, and when the lights finally lit up the city, they symbolised the respect and solidarity of Medellin’s citizens as opposed to the negative connotations typically associated with this day.
The Christmas lights in the main square of Envigado, where we lived.
Pesebres: Colombia’s Colourful Nativity Scenes
Another feature of the Colombian Christmas is the ‘pesebre’ or nativity scene. In every small village house, shop window and public square, pesebres are erected, ranging from eclectic scenes with little plastic farmyard animals, to impressive grand displays of entire towns. Often, Jesus does not appear in the pesebre until the day of the 24th, when he magically appears in the manger.
A pesebre inside a vegetable shop in Manizales
Noche de las Velitas
One of Colombia’s most beautiful Christmas traditions is the ‘Noche de las Velitas’ or Night of the Little Candles. On the 7th and 8th of December, which are national holidays in Colombia, people celebrate the unofficial start of the Christmas season, and the Virgin Mary’s Immaculate Conception, by placing thousands of candles and paper lanterns out in the streets, lighting up every city and town in the country. There are many events and parades on these two days; in Medellin we attended a parade called ‘Desfile de los Mitos y Leyendas’, or Parade of Myths and Legends, where schools and local arts groups created elaborate costumes and statues to represent magical characters and stories. The whole event felt more like Halloween than Christmas, with floaty white ghosts and witches and wizards parading through the streets, all illuminated by the candles and lanterns held by members of the crowd.
Desfile de Mitos y Leyendas
Noches de Novenas
An interesting tradition in Colombia is the daily ritual of the ‘novenas’, which begin on the 14th december and continue until the 24th, Colombia’s Christmas Day. It involves getting together as a family every evening, or alternatively in churches or at other public gatherings, and singing the novena, a call to Jesus to come on Christmas Day with their presents (in Colombia it is the baby Jesus who comes bearing gifts, not our Western Santa Clause). Everyone sings the novena over and over, shaking maracas as a background rhythm. The repetitive tune became firmly wedged in our minds after hearing it every hour, every afternoon, from the church across the road from the school where we were working.
The lyrics to the Novena are as follows:
Ven, ven ven, ven a nuestras almas niñito Come, come come. Come to our souls child
Ven ven ven, ven a nuestras almas niñito Come, come come. Come to our souls child
Ven a nuestras almas Come to our souls
Nooo tardes tanto Don’t take too long
No tardes tanto niñito ven ven, ven. Don’t take too long child, come come come.
Food, glorious food
Whatever the religious festival, whatever the country, the celebration wouldn’t be the same without the food, and Colombia is no exception when it comes to its approach to Christmas.
Buñuelos y natilla
Buñuelos and natilla are both eaten at other times of year but are seen as a festive treat when eaten together. Buñuelos are small doughy cheese balls and natilla is a maize-based sweet pudding which can have various flavours such as arequipe (a caramel sauce) or coconut. Nowadays almost everyone buys ready-made sachets from the supermarket to make their natilla but I had the opportunity to learn the traditional method from a wonderful resident of Comuna 13, Doña Blanca.
Comuna 13 is a large, impoverished district of Medellin which has, along with several other of the city’s barrios, been the site of many positive and transformative community regeneration projects in recent years, and its residents are proud, optimistic people with a desire to show visitors the bright side to their neighbourhood. Many of its inhabitants, such as Doña Blanca, are determined to maintain the neighbourhood’s traditional cultures and customs whilst embracing the positive changes that are taking place in Comuna 13, and making natilla is one such tradition. It is a long and arduous process which involves grinding the maize, sieving it and separating the liquid, and stirring it for about four hours over an open fire. It is therefore understandable that most people choose the supermarket method, although the community spirit cooked up in Comuna 13 left a better taste.
Stirring natilla over an open fire in Comuna 13
Sancochos: the perfect hangover cure
On the 25th December, the day which follows Colombian Christmas Day on the 24th, families, friends and neighbours emerge from their beds and nurse their hangovers over a hot, bubbling ‘sancocho’ on the street. Sancocho is a hearty stew of meat or fish, boiled up in a big vat with potatoes, yuca and plantain, and Colombians love to socialise out in the sunshine with their neighbours as they share their sancocho and get back on the beers, with a ‘hair-of-the-dog’ attitude.
Christmas in Colombia, and the month of December in general, is a period full of festivity, friendship and family, and signifies the Colombian people’s zest for life and their desire to take everyone along with them in their celebrations. If you are able to spend one December of your life in this beautiful country, you are sure to experience a very special and different kind of Christmas.