Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Christmas Lights and Highlights

Christmas in Colombia can make you forgive the country its sins. Forgive the ridiculous traffic, forgive the rain, forgive the potholes and even forgive the $2/lb cat litter. Yes, it starts in late October, but that is just a warm-up. Come December 8th with the noche de velitas (the night of the little candles), we get our first Colombian holiday of the season and day off of work. This is followed by the novenas - nine nights of gatherings with friends and family for food, wine, singing of carols and readings about the meanings and origins of Christmas - kind of like Hannukah and Christmas combined. Finally, The Day itself when utter silence wraps the cities and towns in a feeling of, "Wow, this really IS a nice place to live!" Families stay inside their homes with each other, rarely venturing out to break the peace. Or they leave the crowded cities for fincas (country homes), for the beaches, or to meet with other family in smaller towns. Either way - the city is still and the streets are (nearly) vacant. It is a time reserved for families.

Here is a description of the holiday traditions we learned about or took part in, and overall - thoroughly enjoyed:
  • Nightime ciclovia: A circuit of major avenues is blocked off from 6 pm - midnight for "ciclovia nocturna" (nightime bike routes) when people take to their wheels, whether bikes or blades or skates, and visit the various light displays the city puts on in the popular parks. Entire families head out, or groups of teenagers, or singles with their dogs, or couples - and everyone wants a picture of themselves under the sparkling lights. As you can see here - I was no exception. (Notice the safety-minded and so- attractive-pants-in-sock look I adopted:)


  •  Let's talk about the lighted parks some more. Our favorite has to be Usaquen, a small "town" just a 15-minute walk north of our neighborhood that was usurped by the big city some years ago. It looks as close to a French village as one can within a South American city of 8 million residents. The town square, overlooked by a handsome church, has been decked out in completely lighted trees, an overhead canopy of stars and - best of all - artificial snow machines that disperse soapy snowflakes at regular intervals realistic enough to turn the biggest Scrooge into a giggling 10-year old. We stumbled upon this display after visiting the Irish Pub just half a block away one night, and discovered not only the light and snow show, but also hordes of families enjoying a song-and-dance act put on by wizards in purple gowns (I have no explanation for that - just reporting the facts); characters from Puss-n-Boots, Pirates of the Caribbean, The Mask and other popular-themed costumes ready for photo-ops with the fam. My favorite was Mirror Man, a man in more than just a suit of mirrors - a man whose entire body and every contour thereof from fingers to tie to socks to the divot under his lower lip, were covered in a mosaic of mirror pieces. Beneath the sparkle of the starry lights, he existed only as a reflection and sometimes disapperead. If I had my camera that night, you'd be seeing my goofy grin alongside his cool relection.  Oh, and let me not forget the food! Vendors with carts, or just people selling from their living rooms, kept us well-supplied with corn-on-the-cob, rice pudding (arroz con leche), flan, aromatica, hot chocolate, arrepas and coffee with Aguardiente (Colombia's version of the ubiquitous anise-liqueur) to keep us warm. And even though it was never chillier than, say, 52 degrees - the fake snow and spirit of the frosty season had us all believing it was a true white Christmas. The pre-teen girl standing next to me under the snow machine was all chattering teeth and bundled in a scarf to her ears.


  • Novenas -The Friday before Christmas, Tim, Samantha and I were invited to the home of the director of the animal shelter where we've been volunteering (ADA) to celebrate with their friends and family. We were told to be there from 8-10pm, and so in true American style, arrived at 8:01 to find our friends just starting to set up for the party. (Hey, we didn't mean to be so prompt; it's just that we found a cab way quicker than we'd expected!). They hadn't just stepped out of the shower or anything, but it was a full 35 minutes before others arrived. The evening started with home-made empanadas and salads, and once everyone was gathered, the music was turned off our hostess Martha made a toast to her gathered guests, and in a spirit of looking towards the new year, wished us all well and thanked us for being there to share the evening with her family. A booklet was then brought out to be read from, retelling the story of Christmas. The booklet was passed around the room in a circle, with each person reading a passage (including Tim and I - in Spanish, thank you) and a chorus of a carol was repeated between each reader.  After the readings, lively conversation and some spontaneous dancing ensued. By about 11, we caught a cab for home.


  • Christmas Eve - Just three blocks away, we noticed a church offering an 8pm mass for Christmas Eve. It wasn't the Misa de Gallo (Mass of the rooster - or Midnight Mass) that Tim was hoping for, but with my tendency to fall instantly asleep when sitting still for more than 15 minutes in a warm room past 8 pm - it was a much better option for me. It was a traditional Catholic Mass with readings, a sermon, carols we didn't recognize but the lyrics were projected on the wall and then time for quiet prayers/introspection. I wasn't raised with mass being a part of Christmas, but it is an important part of the holiday for Tim, so he was happy to find something close by. The pews were full and I think we were the only gringos in attendance, which made it nice as a cultural experience for me. Once we got home, we could see many darkened apartments of our neighbors who had already headed out of town for the holiday, but there were others who were hosting late-night dinners with friends.

  • Christmas Day - We woke to the sound of utter silence in the streets. A detour from a flood-damaged avenue nearby has been sending collectivos, chivas and honking commuters in front of our building for weeks, so the complete lack of traffic and humanity was as surprising as it was luxurious. We opened the rest of our presents and headed to a friends' for brunch. As it was Sunday, the regular ciclovia was in place and a major avenue near our apartment was closed to traffic, allowing families to walk or bike off their holiday meals. We took a leisurely walk to our friends' place, past the walled compounds of the Dutch, French and British amassadors' residences (a really lovely neighborhood!). Later, after resting our stomachs from the brunch feast, we walked to another friend's apartment for Christmas dinner. Finally, late that night, a pre-arranged embassy van came to take us all to the airport to make Samantha's red-eye back to the States.  With that, we said goodnight to our first Colombian Christmas and marveled at the completely empty highway on the way back home.

  • Day after Christmas - As Christmas fell on a Sunday this week, the embassy closed for the Monday following instead. After four hours of much-needed deep housecleaning, I took to the streets for a neighborhood stroll. The rainy season - as predicted - has seemingly ended, and we're left with what feels like Southern California weather. It was probably 70 degrees and the bright blue skies stayed all day, a rare occurence. I walked to a large, popular park nearby to find it crowded with families trying out their new bikes and rollerblades, couples feeding each other ice cream on park benches, and people lounging on blankets in the grass, shoes off. I sat on a bench and watched for quite a while before reluctantly heading back indoors.
Sunshine, tranquility, holiday good will and time off with friends and family - Colombia at Christmas certainly is doing its best to woo us!

1 comment:

  1. Okay I'm gonna have to head out around Moscow and share some of the beautiful lights they've got up around here. Orthodox Christmas isn't until January 7, and New Years is HUGE around here. Thanks for sharing your little part of the world :)

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