We felt like kids again, excited and in anticipation of what was coming next. We haven’t felt this way about the holidays as long as we can remember, thanks to our lifestyle change and to our first Christmas in Colombia.
We’ve spent Christmas away from our families in Canada many times before. In the past, during our corporate days, we maximized our holidays each year and banked them till December so we could at least take a month off or longer to travel. However, we felt those trips often passed-by due to a hectic-paced tour of a country. Back then it was more about the escape and travel experience instead of just enjoying the moment.
Medellin has become our home base for a part of the year now and we knew this place would be special during Christmas. Firstly, Colombians are passionate people, and mostly Catholic so it’s no surprise that they find enjoyment with Christmas celebrations Second, their celebrations are wrapped up in all kinds of meaningful traditions that we are discovering now.
When we arrived back in Medellín on November 1st, thousands of Christmas lights were going up all over the city in a slow and steady pace. We knew then that we were in for a legendary light show, and we were reminded us of what our Colombian friends told us.
They were also setting up an enormous stage with three gigantic screens in the main square in Envigado, where we live, to kick off the festivities the last weekend in November. Unfortunately we had an event in Bogotá at that time, but every evening after that has been a spectacle!
So far, we've had the opportunity to experience some of the very interesting traditions, since Christmas is celebrated here the entire month of December. Thus, there is no shortage of things to do during this season.
The most exciting event here is the El Alumbrado (that word sounds like Illuminate and it says it all). This Christmas light festival is popular during Christmas in every region in Colombia, but it’s immense in Medellin. Paisas (people from Medellín and area) are downright mad about lights.In fact, Medellin just won this year in National Geographic’s top 5 cities in the world for its Christmas light show and this year is its 50th anniversary. When we arrived back here on November 1st, for weeks the city workers painstakingly hung up thousands of strings of lights for weeks, blocking off major roads. These light shows included our neighborhood, and others areas in the city center, and Parque Norte, north of the city.
We rented a Chiva with friends (a traditional wooden open-air bus that is best described as a party bus) to drive around the city, especially to the major parks that feature the light shows.
We stopped at each park to wander, gorge on greasy street food and enjoy the energy of families in awe of the immense light shows. The lights are a bit kitchy and tacky in some spots, but the excitement of everyone makes up for it. Believe it or not, the lights stay up, well beyond Christmas and are lit again for a major fashion event in February. In Canada, Christmas lights are taken down swiftly only to be replaced by the next commercial Valentine’s Day behind it. I like this idea of easing out of the holiday season, it seems less stressful to me.
Fortunately, our Colombian friends forewarned us about what usually happens the night before the 1st day of December. At midnight, firecrackers, fireworks, smoke and gunpower (yes, gunpowder!) fill the air, and it doesn’t stop. All NIGHT LONG. Bangs, booms and fireworks resonate, and these are more amateur but lovely light shows, but they did last well into the morning. It's no surprise there are accidents throughout the year, so gunpowder is now banned, but people still find a way to obtain it. So this night called La Alborada - can be considered a fun night or a terrible night - depending on how you look at it.
We knew sleep wasn't going to be an option that night so instead we stayed up with our friends and drank wine enjoying the views from our apartment balcony. So, the Paisas really like to ring in the Christmas season with a bang!
El Noche de las Velitas (The night of the candles) was one of the most special nights for me.
On December 7th every year, at 7pm, thousands of candles are lit on windows, sidewalk streets, and outside of homes, restaurants and businesses. This is the night before the Immaculate Conception and the candles provide a path for the Virgin Mary to bring blessings for the new year, and as thanksgiving to the ones she brought for the current year. I walked through our neighborhood admiring all the lights and the beautiful and often creative displays of candles, as far as I could see. Families sat outside their homes playing music, praying, singing songs and eating Sanchoco (the most delectable typical Paisa chicken stew ever). Our Spanish school put on a special evening to sample Christmas treats and practice Spanish with Colombian locals before they would go home to celebrate the festivities with their families. A super memorable evening.
When you witness unfamiliar traditions, it makes you reflect on what you have experienced in your culture. In our Christian upbringing, we always had a nativity scene in our churches and as decoration in our homes. It was lovely to look at, and I appreciated the significance of the story that we were told when we were young, but that is where its purpose stopped.
Colombians create elaborate and enormous Nativity scenes and you can find them everywhere. In Colombia, the Nativity scene is the place for praying, reciting Christmas carols and reading passages from the bible in their homes, apartments and community areas (even town squares) during the Las Novenas or the nine nights before Christmas Eve. From Dec 16th to Dec 24th, families gather around the Nativity. In fact, Christmas carols are only sung starting December 16th (unlike what we are used to). And the manger has a noticable absence - there is no baby Jesus. Technically, he isn’t born until the end of Novenas. When we were kids, it was a big honor to be the child to put the baby Jesus in the manger when we were setting up our Christmas décor in early December. In Colombian tradition, I guess we will just have to wait for the baby to arrive!
Santa Claus is very much a commercial figure here and he is considered as just an influence from USA and other countries, so Santa is not a cultural thing here. Although there are plenty of decorations bearing his likeness, it is actually the Baby Jesus who delivers Christmas presents to the children. After all, it is his birthday, so why not celebrate his by giving to Colombian children too?
No Christmas in Colombia is complete without FOOD.
Right now, in the days leading up to Christmas, there are food carts lined up along the El Alumbrada lighted parks in the city. The food is heavy on the meat – pork and chicken sausages with Arepas (the fried version of tortillas), and empanadas (filled with potato or chicken). There were not a lot of veggies in these kiosks. In fact, I haven’t seen any.
No turkey dinner here. It’s not a thing anywhere here. Typically, Christmas dinner consists of pork (called Marano) or chicken with salad, rice, potatoes, vegetables, and desserts although there isn't a typical dish for Christmas dinner. Sometimes, a whole pig is prepared for the holidays. Often, Sanchoco (that delicious chicken stew) I mentioned earlier) is served, but during the nine days leading up to Christmas.
There are lots of sweet delicacies made for the holidays such as Natilla, which can best be described as a sweet caramel-like pudding. It’s served with the popular regular snack, called Buñelos or fried dough balls filled with cheese. Cheesecake, Arequipe and other baked sweets also make an appearance in some dinner tables. We tried out making this a Colombia Immersion Spanish school, during the evening of Las Velitas.
The big celebration is on Christmas Eve, Dec 24th, the ubiquitous family-gathering night and the celebration of the birth of Jesus. Of course, dinner is accompanied by rum, beer, Aguardiente (the Colombian spirit best described as a licorice liquor like Sambuca) and wine (although Colombianos are big wine drinkers like North Americans, but it may be included with dinner).
If you think the Christmas Festivities stop after the 25th, you are mistaken! They continue after Christmas and New Year's. We look forward to taking in these festivities and discovering more interesting traditions. I guess we will have to wait to see more.
Christmas is celebrated a little differently in other parts of Colombia, do you have experiences you want to share? Maybe you want to enjoy a Christmas in Colombia some time?
For more about traveling in Colombia, you can find our posts here!
Dorene is a marketing consultant and freelance writer. She quit her 20-year career in marketing to redesign her career and lifestyle on her own terms by living location independent. Now with her husband Troy, she helps people who want to redefine their midlife and make conscious changes at TravelLifeX. She also trains & coaches travel and hospitality clients to improve their marketing at TravelLifeMedia.com