Tuesday, December 7, 2010
Candles and Fireworks: Christmas in Bogota
Día de las Velitas (Day of the Little Candles) is one of Colombia's most observed traditional holidays. It is celebrated on December 7, on the eve of the Immaculate Conception, which is a public holiday. I had never heard of this celebration before coming to Colombia. Apparently it is more Colombian than strictly Catholic. Traditionally this would be the day that the city would turn on its Christmas lights in the parks and on some of the city's main thoroughfares. This year, however, the city lit up on Friday 26 November. The current mayor has come under a lot of fire for botched public works and suspicious contracting. I guess he wanted some pretty lights to distract the people's attention.
On December 7 people put candles and paper lanterns on their windows, balconies, porches, sidewalks, streets, parks and squares, in short, everywhere they can be seen, in honor of the Virgin Mary and the Immaculate Conception.
Visiting the city's parks to see the lights has become a traditional Christmas pastime here. There is an annual competition between neighbourhoods for which one has the best lights display. Taking trips to the different parts of town to see the lights has become a regular family outing. Some popular parks, like El Virrey, get so crowded that it is a complete mob scene.
As well as lights, people will set up elaborate nativity scenes (pesebres), with complete landscapes that will include the town on Bethlehem, fields, real rivers, mountains, lights, moving pieces We used to think the mechanical display in Ogilvy's window in downtown Montreal was special; that was nothing compared to the work and detail of some of these nativity scenes!
Even though José Miguel was rabidly antireligious, he still replicated the Christmas traditions as they brought back fond memories of his childhood. One of the former traditions was to send up hot air balloons made of paper, that were powered by a candle suspended below the mouth of the balloon. Not surprisingly these used to fall onto people's houses and cause a lot of fires, and the municipal government eventually outlawed them. Still, during my early years here I remember one Christmas that we sent up a paper hot air balloon from the park in Sta. Barbara. It was truly beautiful to see the glowing balloon float silently off into the night. I hope it didn't land on someone's house.
Another thing that the city outlawed was fireworks in private hands. Every year around Christmas, little kiosks would pop up all over town selling fireworks… and every night on the news we would get the latest updates on how many children (and adults) had their fingers blown off or lost eyes. The city finally said enough is enough and banned private fireworks. Now it puts on professional fireworks displays that are much better than the cheap little fireworks that people could afford to buy. Still, it has been hard to break the habit. When someone has grown up with a tradition that has positive associations for them, they want to repeat it with their children, even if it means reckless endangerment. Still, nowadays you don't hear as many illegal fireworks being set off as you used to. People have come around to the idea that they are dangerous to handle, expensive, and the city puts on far better shows.
Tonight there will be a big fireworks display in Parque Simon Bolivar. I have a front row seat from my living room window. The city hires professional international pyrotechnics experts. What the Bogota version may lack in artistic interpretation (say, compared with the Montreal International Fireworks Competition), it makes up for with exuberance. Still, the city puts on a show that is not too shabby at all.
7 December: Let the Festivities Begin!