It’s been said countless times that the holidays for the Latino/ Latinx community aren’t typical. We’ve got that part on lock. However, what people often forget is how each Latin American and Caribbean region has its own set of holiday traditions.
Though we may all share language (except for Brazil) and similar customs, each region is equipped with its own ways.
Let’s take Colombia, for example.
As with most Latin American countries, Colombian Christmas traditions are filled with an abundance of energy and food. Sure, every Latin American country brings its own energy and folkloric foods to the holiday table, but it will never completely mirror another country’s experience.
That doesn’t mean that there’s a better or worse way to experience the holidays. All traditions are beautiful. But it is important to appreciate the different traditions within our diverse culture.
So, as a Colombian, I’m going to give you the opportunity to learn about our unique traditions.
Endless holiday spirit
Our holiday spirit is felt way before December. In fact, there are cities in Colombia that start decorating for the holidays the day after Halloween or, as we call it over there: “El día del niño.” However, it is officially (at least for Colombians) Christmas season on the day of Las Velitas (the day of the candles.) This day, which occurs every seventh of December, is the eve of the Immaculate Conception. El Día de las Velitas is a spectacle, to say the least. Most houses light candles in front of their houses, music blasts from the neighborhoods, family, and friends gather, and the food is neverending. And that energy remains well into January. This spirit is heightened by los alumbrados or the Christmas lights that shine throughout the cities of Colombia. I recently visited my birth city, Medellin, in November and there were towns already lit up to the max with their alumbrados, and it was such a lovely thing to experience.
I’ve noticed about Colombian people that most of us love looking good at family events. It doesn’t matter how hard that year, that month, or even that day has been; we will show up as fabulous as we can. In fact, it’s a tradition (for those privileged enough to partake in) to have a new outfit, from head to toe, Christmas Eve, and New Year’s Eve. It’s just the way it is. I promise you that in the days leading up to these celebrations, people are constantly asking you if you’ve gotten your estrén. It’s an actual topic of conversation, which now I laugh about — before it annoyed me. That’s how important it is.
A lot of our holiday traditions are embedded in Christianity. We all know those traditions were brought in by colonizers way back, but that’s a topic for another article. Nevertheless, religious traditions are a given for most Colombian families. I understand not everyone practices Christianity in Colombia, particularly Roman Catholicism, but the mass majority does. This is why it isn’t uncommon to hear families, friends, and neighbors prepare for novenas together. A novena is a Christmas prayer event that lasts nine days; it starts every 16th of December. People show up at each other’s house to pray, eat, and dance — all in that order. Other religious-inspired traditions include la Misa de Gallo. Instead of Santa Claus, children believe in El Niñito Dios and have a constant conversation about how we are ultimately celebrating the birth of El Niño Dios.
Food, food, and more food
Colombian food during the holidays is out of this world. There’s often an asado (barbeque) with chorizos, arepas, chicharrones, and meat — lots of meat. In my family, we make chuzos (also known as pinchos) with all those food items. Of course, having a cooked pig is also part of the night for some families. But that, to me, isn’t even the best part. I’m more about the baked goods and foods made “para picar” or to grab here and there — hors d’oeuvres if you may (but there’s nothing light about them.)
This means the empanadas, buñuelos, natilla, hojuelas, arroz con leche, tamales, and so much more. I salivate just thinking about all of these foods. Now, if there’s one thing we will do is show respect to those who slave their days away to cook these foods. All of that starts in the morning so that you can get ready with time before the sala party.
I’ve been in charge of cooking empanadas, hojuelas, natilla, and chicharrones before (not all at once), but cooking for Colombians is not for the faint of heart at all. Prepare to be in the kitchen for a minimum of four hours without sitting down, especially since you’ll probably be cooking large portions.
Dance the night away
All of that food is only an invitation for a calorie overload. Thankfully, those calories will be danced the night away. Colombians have an extreme attachment to música navideña, and we refuse to let a Christmas Eve go to waste without dancing to as many of those songs (with the help of aguardiente and rum, of course.) What amazes me the most about my people is how we happily listen and dance to the same music our grandparents and their parents once danced to. It’s the same cumbias, the same Pastor Lopez songs, the same Grupo Niche salsa songs, and the same boleros at the end of the night. And we all love it every single year.
Not to say that Colombians drink a lot, but it tends to happen during the holidays. This is why it’s also a tradition to have everything prepared for the hang-over sancocho the day after. If anything, this is one of the most important conversations to be had when preparing for our holiday parties. It’s not only finding the person who will cook the sancocho (it’s never me), but letting everyone know which house to show up to. Also, this is yet another opportunity to continue partying (as if the night before wasn’t enough.) So, after the hangover nap (I’m sure no one ever gets eight hours in), people start preparing themselves for sancocho day. Perhaps this is why I’m so good at pulling all-nighters without being phased the next morning — it’s cultural.
As someone who has been immersed in a variety of cultures thanks to living in Miami, I can confidently say that there’s not one Latin American country that celebrates the holidays exactly like another. And I find that to be one of the most beautiful parts of our Latino/Latinx culture.
Note: This is just my personal experience. No me vengan a decir que así no es because every Colombian household is different. So, chao pesca’o.