Colombian Daddy's Take on Colombian Christmas

If this is your first Christmas in Colombia, here are some things you can expect and some instructions on how to weather the Holiday season there.

1. For 98 % of the people it IS Christmas. Not much mention of Kwanzaa or Hanukkah or any other non-Christian tradition. Furthermore, while there are many Christian and evangelical denominations in the country, most Colombians call themselves Catholics. In fact, it is around this time, whether on Christmas Eve or New Year's Eve, that a lot of them actually make it to Mass.

2. Thus, you can expect decorations with religious motifs and people gathering to do the Rosary around Nativity Scenes. However, more recently, Santa, Reindeer, and snow-covered pine tree decorations have become more common. Hey, if Americans and Europeans do it, it's got to be cool, never mind the sunny -- and in some places sweltering -- weather outside.

3. Yes, there are Christmas trees too. They are everywhere. We hang Christmas ornaments from them too. However, we use the generic term "el arbolito" to denote the plastic pine tree, the dry leafless bush painted grey and decorated with cotton balls, the other freshly cut thorny bush, and even the cactus tree (I helped my mother decorate one years ago, so it's true). Also, a great variety of items may cameo as ornaments: bottle caps, Brazilian soccer player bobble heads, mini soccer balls, the kids first pair of tiny little shoes, the socks that went with the little shoes, their first tooth, key chains, the list goes on... Oh and some "bolas de navidad" too.

4. The Nativity Scene may include not only the traditional figures, but also soldiers, cowboys, Indians, cars, motorcycles, Barbie and/or Ken, rabbit feet, rubber ducky, Lego pieces, a mailman, a milk man, etc. In short, any small figure available at the home or that the kids gathered over the last year.

The manger (the PESEBRE) might be the central point, but it can be in the form of a two story home, a fort, a trailer, a palace....And it is not the only building. Usually a whole city (with traffic and traffic lights) is built around it.

5. This is not the quiet season when you wear your snuggie, sip hot cocoa, cozy up by the fire and watch snow fall. In Colombia, this is the loudest time of the year. Even the weather seems to scream "let's get ready to "parteeeee". Afrocaribbean based rhythms will be blaring out any speaker in town. The festive mood resembles more a summer holiday fest for those of you living in places with 4 seasons.

6. Traditional foods return every year around this time. If invited to a home, accepting the invitation and eating the food are the polite things to do. Don't worry about showing up on time, though. Parties usually start late, 8-10 pm and end, well, whenever. But one of these might signify it's time for you to go: the sun comes up, food runs out, drinks run out, the lady of the home hasn't been seen for a couple of hours and turns out she's sleeping, or the man of the house stumbles into his pick up truck and beckons everyone to follow him because it's time to go on the traditional "Paseo de Olla" (picnic).

7. Unfortunately alcohol consumption does skyrocket around this 2 week period. Feel free to say no and beware of drunk drivers. Yeah, even your cabby could be intoxicated and not just from the festive spirit.

8. Your ticket to escape could be sitting next to you: your kids. It is OK to claim that they need to go to bed. But, people will offer their beds for you to lay them on. Why? So that, first, you can continue to party, and second, all of you can be safe from El Sereno (See my entry on this terrible outdoor enemy here:

The best counterattack is to say that you just want to get the kids in bed, BEFORE the Sereno gets worse.

9. Common games called "Aguinaldos" are part of the season. Some people in Colombia may be shocked to find out that you don't know what they are or haven't played them before. (What planet do you come from?) It is ok to pass especially on "Tres Pies" and "El Beso Robado".

See more here:

10. It is counter - etiquette to show up at someone's home empty handed. Appropriate gifts include the usual "Tarros de Galletas" (tin boxes of cookies), boxes of chocolates, or an ancheta (basket of goodies). All may be picked up at any grocery store during this time.

Tune in tomorrow for tips on handling Colombian Christmas eve!


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