In the United States, at least in the Midwest, there are several signs that Christmas is coming:
- lights arrive at Target in September and October, around the same time as the hats, mittens, and gloves (that way you can get them up before the roof’s just a sheet of snow and ice)
- as soon as November 1, marketing at all stores is all about Christmas
- mint and gingerbread-flavored things appear
- Thanksgiving happens
- that one oldies station starts playing non-stop Christmas music
- downtown and park areas start lighting up; soon enough homes do too
- trees appear in house windows
- cold & snow
I expected none of those things to happen.
Yet there I was on day in October, in a store called Éxito (the store that I always use to explain Target to Colombians), when I ran into 3 aisles of Christmas decorations. A couple weeks later, while out walking the dog, I passed a couple of houses lit for Christmas. In December, the “cold” – the strong breezes – arrived. Mid-December, Christmas trees and Nativity scenes could be seen everywhere. Supposedly, Christmas music started playing…but to me it just sounded like the normal salsa and vallenato.
The Christmas season really kicks off here on December 7 with the vigil of the Day of the Immaculate Conception – but here the celebration is really Día de las Velitas (the day of the little candles).
Day of the Immaculate Conception and Día de las Velitas
In the Catholic tradition, December 8 is the celebration of the angel Gabriel descending from the heavens to give news to the young lady Mary that she will be conceiving the child of God. My mother could explain this all better, but according to my research, the day is a solemnity and so is marked with a vigil. In my experience in the United States, all vigils were observed in the church building, rather than at home.
Not the case in Colombia.
People light candles in little paper or plastic lanterns on their front patios and wait until the sunrise, when it is said that the Virgin Mary passes by. In some areas, the people actually don’t hold the vigil on the 7th, but rather wake up very early on the morning of December 8, the actual day of the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, and light their candles. In many places, it is customary to walk the streets and see all the candles.
My house went to bed when the candles had burned out, after we had also played with some sparklers. I had no reason to stay up, or people to stay up with, so I didn’t go touring the candles that night or early morning – but I enjoyed seeing the remnants of candles melted onto sidewalks and streets all over.
I was told by someone that the reason that December 8 is a federal holiday is because everyone stays up so late the night before; I am now realizing that the holiday is for the actual Day of the Immaculate Conception, but that changing traditions have altered that understanding.
Novena literally means “ninth.” For the last 9 days prior to Christmas (December 16-24), it is customary for people to gather at 6pm and pray and sing the Christmas novenas, special prayers written for those 9 days. I saw this happen in the church plaza, other plazas, in my own home, and at the cultural foundation where I sometimes hang out.
The foundation started each of their novenas with a reflection on a piece of art depicting the nativity scene, which was a really unique take on this tradition. It was a great way to get some kids to pay attention to artwork for a few minutes, as the kids who attended all nine nights received gifts at the end of the period. Then they went into the normal sequence – the retelling of part of the Christmas story, a reflection on what that means relative to our lives, recitations of some Our Fathers and Hail Marys, then a series of little prayers that various attendees read, with this annoying little song sung with maracas and tambourines in between each prayer.
There’s actually no real reference to navidad here; more often, people talk about the 24th. It is the date on which people here gather and celebrate Christmas. Tradition is to have a big dinner in family, then open gifts at midnight. What I saw my young adult friends doing was leaving their families behind once midnight passed to go party at the bars and estrenar or debut their new Christmas clothes.
At my house, my host mom made a tasty dinner of chicken with ham, mashed potatoes, spinach rice, and traditional buñuelos, plus a coconut pudding that I was too full to try until the next day. Afterwards, my family sat together on the patio enjoying the neighbor’s loud music and the breeze and time together chatting, drinking, and dancing. I helped my youngest host sister put baby Jesus in the manger at midnight and then both my host sisters went to sleep; meanwhile I stayed up with my host parents until 2:30ish chatting.
Nativity scenes and decorated streets
People on the coast of Colombia are extremely creative, and this was evident in the decorations found around town during December. From homemade light balls and snowmen made out of plastic cups, to entire blocks of streets lined with arches with lights, to amazing homemade nativity scenes, neighborhoods really got together to create beautiful scenes. The first picture in this blog post are a couple examples – the sunny one was on a random section of a random street, and the dark one is in my home. My host mom had just constructed the stable that day. There were so many more, but I only managed to snag pictures of a couple others.