Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Navidad in Colombia

I remember as a little girl, the absolute thrill I felt during Christmas; and it wasn’t just about the presents and the treats. In my birth country, Colombia, we didn’t get presents from Santa Claus (or Papa Noel). Nope, it was all about sharing in the birthday of Baby Jesus (or El Niño Jesus). When I was a little girl, I used to think him the MOST generous of all birthday boys because it was he who left presents under the tree for me if I had been half way decent throughout the year (luckily, he was a forgiving sort).

Our faith and the celebratory mood of Christmas in Colombia always go hand in hand. Navidad- or Christmas in Spanish, really starts on December 7th. At dusk, the lighting of “las velitas” or the candles happens all over the country. Children and adults light candles and lanterns to make tunnels of soft, white light that beautifully illuminate the most humble of neighbourhoods, to the most spectacular streets and churches. This is done to celebrate the day of “La Virgen de la Immaculada Concepción”- or the day of the Virgin of the Immaculate conception- on December 8th. And since this is Colombia, there’s always a fiesta for every occasion, including music, buñuelos (savoury cheese fritters), cornmeal empanadas stuffed with meat and potatoes and the occasional firework display.

By December 16th, the Novenas (or daily prayers) begin for nine days until Christmas Eve, which is reserved for midnight mass followed by a feast at home. Meant to remind Colombians about the true meaning of Christmas, the Novenas are also a good excuse to gather family, sing villancicos (Spanish Christmas carols), and eat Christmas foods including my favourite- natilla (a set custard made with cinnamon that tastes like firm dulce de leche), served with a side of buñuelos, hot chocolate for the kids and a shot of aguardiente (literally “firewater”) - an anise-flavoured spirit made from sugar cane, for the adults. Roasted pig is always on the menu this time of year as are tamales, plantain-leaf steamed cornmeal masa packets wrapped around mildly chicken or pork and veggies.

But my favourite tradition has to do with engaging children to think about how lucky they are. I remember buying gifts, wrapping them and then going to deliver them to those less fortunate than myself- and I did this in Canada with my Colombian parents. If I ever have children, this would be one of the first things I’d like to do for Christmas. The expression on those kids’ faces has never left me. For at least one day a year, we can all be as generous as the birthday boy himself!


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