Known as Noche Buena, Navidad, or simply El 24, December 24th is the time when the essential traditions of Colombian Christmas celebrations take place. But before diving into what will happen tonight, a little background is in order.
For most kids, the school year ends around the middle of November. This is true for University students as well. With tests and grades behind and even remedial tests and courses postponed until January, the arrival of December is akin to the arrival of a long awaited weekend after a hard work week. Maybe is more like the arrival of summer in places away from the Equator.
Usually December also brings the end of the November rains and ushers in the beginning of bright, sunny days. Thus, everything is set for a month long celebration, and the build up to the 24th begins.
All of this helps explain why as adults we Colombians have such a hard time feeling like working at all around this time of the year. In fact, the worst time is when El 24 falls on a weekend because then we can't take off the 2 days prior or the 2 after in what we call "un puente." (Puente = In Colombia, (1) the ability to take Monday or Friday off work or school if a holiday falls on a Tuesday or Thursday thereby creating a long weekend. (2)secondary meaning: could be a bridge over a river or road.) Anyway, to this day, when I write the date on a paper at work during this week, and realize what day it is, I feel that something is wrong. I should be at home or playing somewhere.
Back to the 24th. The morning is spent preparing food, clothing, and music. Some people will begin their Christmas shopping. Mothers will insist that kids shower and put on their brand new clothes since "estrenar" is part of Christmas. (Estrenar= to wear a piece of clothing or a pair of shoes for the first time. If you are aware that someone is 'estrenando', appropriate complementary expressions include "u-tu-tuy!", "que elegancia la de Francia!", or "May I step on your new shoes?")
While in every home music will be blaring from loud speakers all day and people will gather to laugh and talk, the official start of the party will be when the first couple steps onto the dance floor (most likely the living room or garage floor with seats arranged against the walls). Typically this starts around 8 pm. The great thing about music in Colombia is that it unites all generations. Little kids, teens, adults and grandparents will all dance to the same music and even with each other -- although most teens will give priority to dancing the slow vallenatos where they can amacizar la novia (ie. get close to their girlfriends -- ok, I'll write about amacizar later.) Dancing will be interrupted for dinner right before or right after midnight.
NOTE: Midnight is the important hour! Even little kids stay up waiting for midnight, because that's when they will receive their presents -- from El Niño Dios, not Santa. Nothing compares to the countdown of the last few seconds before midnight, as Cinco, Cuarto, Tres, Dos, Uno is blurted out in unison by everyone -- all standing with some crying.
As 12 o'clock is announced, there will be an explosion of hugs, kisses, and best wishes. If this is your first time, just allow people to hug you and leave some tears on your shoulder. It will be over when everyone has hugged everybody at least once! Then the dancing will be on full blast.
Colombians learn to crawl, walk, and dance quickly and sometimes in that order. So expect to see some great moves. Haven't danced salsa before? No problem! It is about attempting it. They will appreciate your efforts. Danced ballroom before? Forget all about it, this is NOT the time to show off your stiff back Cha-cha skills. (What's the Cha-cha? They might ask you) Just relax and move to the music. Survival of the fittest follows. Merengue, salsa, vallenato, cumbia, champeta, calipso, etc, etc, have many things in common with aerobics classes (hence Zumba). But it is so much fun that you'll forget you've been moving for hours. Colombians have been described as some of the happiest people on earth, and at no time can their happiness be better appreciated than during the month of December.
On el 24, there might be a pause in the dancing, someone might pull out a guitar, and all will sing songs from Decembers past -- karaoke style. Everyone will seem to know the lyrics. Join in if you happen to understand or speak some Spanish. Or they might even let you sing one in English.
Understandably so, the morning of Christmas day is a little quieter. Most will be resting. Quite possibly, there will be a picnic during the afternoon. The best part? December isn't over yet. In one week there will be another huge reason to celebrate. El 31 is coming! More on that next week!