Saturday, January 1, 2011

Christmas and New Year's Eve in Colombia


In North America Christmas Eve is mainly a family celebration (although I do remember escaping for a beer with my sister when tensions were running high in the house). New Year's Eve is the big party. In Colombia, the traditions are reversed: Christmas Eve is a party but New Year's Eve is a family event. So here are two of my most memorable Christmas and New Year's Eves:

In 1991 I went with my friend Estela to her family's farm in the rural area of Manta, Cundinamarca. Manta is a tiny town tucked along the slopes of a jutting knife of the Colombian Andes. It is only an hour and a half outside of Bogota, but the drive to get there is breathtaking and when you arrive you have reached another world.

Coffee beans drying by the roadside.

1991 was a very dry year. Colombia, an exporter of hydroelectric energy, was in crisis. Because of the lack of rain, the reservoirs were dry. Electricity rationing was introduced, meaning energy cuts at certain points during the day. Cesar Gaviria's government put the country onto daylights savings time, for the first time ever, in order to gain an extra hour of light in the evening. In the city, people adopted the new time standard, but in the countryside it was irrelevant. The roosters crowed, the cows needed to be milked at the same time as ever.

Estela at the front of the house (side view).

Estela and I arrived around midday on December 24, standing all the way on a packed bus from Bogota. Her mother was bustling about the house, making envueltos (ground cornmeal from their cornfield, with fresh cheese and butter from the cow, a bit of sugar and salt, mixed together and steamed inside the corn husks). Estela and I went out to visit the neighbors, bringing little gifts for the children and used clothes. My best friend grew up in a region inhabited by subsistence farmers, eking a living off of the land. If your farm does not produce, you go hungry. Estela's family was something of an oddity in the region. Her father sent all the children to school, even though eight of the 10 children were girls. "Why are you bothering to educate the girls?" the neighbors asked. Everywhere we went we were greeting with affection and respect. Estela had been instrumental a number of years earlier in petitioning the authorities to get the community connected to the national electricity grid. Now she was here, and with a foreigner. Many of these neighbors had never met a foreigner before. They asked me questions: Are there cows in Canada? Do you have potatoes? How does Canada deal with its guerrillas? Because we were La Visita, they served us Vino Cariñoso de Manzana and ponque Ramo, or if they didn’t have that, the ubiquitous black coffee sweetened with raw cane sugar (tinto con panela). I felt guilty about receiving hospitality from people who have so little. It took all afternoon to make the rounds and enquire after all the neighbors and their extended families. The afternoon was drawing to a close as we got back to the house.

The back of the house.

After a snack and before it got dark, Estela announced that it was time to go down to the corner store by the main road, because that is where the neighbors gather on Christmas Eve. We put on our sweaters to protect against the coolness of the gathering dusk, grabbed a flashlight, and headed down through the coffee groves, across the footbridge, and then up the hill to the store by the roadside. Estela and I read and sang the novena with Doña Blanca and her family.

Doña Blanca's nativity this year.

Other neighbours began trickling in. With each new arrival, a new round of introductions was made. Estela and I ordered a round of beer for all. As each new neighbour arrived, another round of beer was ordered. A cold beer was being put in my hand about every 15 minutes. I would clank my bottle with the new arrival, have a sip or two, and then put the bottle under my stool. By the end of the evening I had a good dozen beers with a couple of sips out of them under my chair. At 11:00 o'clock, or midnight under daylight savings time, people started setting off their fireworks to welcome the Christ Child. Considerable drunken debate ensued about whether it was actually midnight or not. Just because the central government had decreed a time change, that didn't mean that time had actually changed. So was it midnight now, or an hour later, or an hour ago??? It didn't matter, there were plenty of fireworks. After a while Estela and I bid our farewells to the neighbors and heading back up to the house. Once there we set off the fireworks that we had brought with us from the city. It was a lot of fun, but I can see how people lose their fingers doing this.

We went to bed and slept in the absolute peaceful darkness of the remote country night, peaceful except for the sound of fireworks popping in the distance.


New Year's Eve

The New Year's Eve I spent with the family of my first boyfriend in Colombia, Carlos Alberto, was an introduction to another new set of traditions. Although I was not family, it seemed indecent to them that anyone without family should spend New Year's Eve alone. New Year's Eve in Colombia is not a party; it is a family celebration, of togetherness and hopes for the New Year. Here are some of the Colombian traditions: Wear something yellow (often underwear) inside out for good luck (huh?). Burn the "seven sweet herbs" house (rue, basil, threeflower ticktrefoil, chamomile, myrrh; I know this isn't seven) as incense to purify the house. Eat 12 grapes at midnight and make a wish on each grape. Go for a walk around the block with your suitcase so that you will travel during the New Year. Hang aloe behind the doorway of your home or business to keep bad energy away. Hang a bunch of wheat sprigs over your doorway to ensure that you will not go hungry. Put dry lentils in your pocket to ensure prosperity. And there are many others.

Lucky yellow underwear.

Colombians are big believers in lucky rituals. As I walked past the grocery store early in the evening on December 31 this year, the street vendors were doing a brisk business in aloe, sprigs of wheat, and bundles of herbs. The New Year's Eve celebration is completely different from the frenzied, drunken partying and desperate resolutions of other latitudes. Interestingly, resolutions don't seem to figure heavily in the traditions here. I guess that once you have appealed to the spirits and the universe, you can just sit back and watch your luck unfold.

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