Spending Christmas in a foreign country can be a truly eye-opening experience, especially since it’s easy to assume that as a worldwide festivity, most countries probably celebrate in a fairly similar manner. Being from the UK, Christmas for me is representative of spending time with family and friends; exchanging presents; eating and drinking; and, of course, hiding from the cold. In Colombia, given that about 90 per cent of the population identifies as Christian, the majority being Roman Catholic, Christmas is viewed much more as a time which devotes itself to religion.
With festivities beginning on 7 December, Colombia is recognised as having the longest Christmas celebration period in the world. On this day, Colombians celebrate el Día de las Velitas, velitas meaning 'little candles', which pays tribute to the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary. The festivities generally begin in the evening with the lighting of candles and lanterns, either in the street, parks or outside people's homes. Cities are lit up by lanterns and fireworks, as this day marks the beginning of the Christmas period — although decorations have been up since early November. Another Catholic tradition in Colombia is La Novena de Aguinaldos, which as well as being a religious tribute also functions as a social occasion, where during the nine days before Christmas family members and friends meet up to pray, sing songs and share traditional foods.
Probably the biggest surprise for me has been the music people listen to during the Christmas period. At first, you could easily mistake these songs for the classic salsa, vallenato and cumbia, which is played all year round – to be honest, they pretty much are, except they mention Navidad and Año Nuevo in the lyrics, 'Christmas' and 'New Year'. Being used to the likes of Band Aid, Mariah Carey and John Lennon, I was a bit baffled when I first encountered these festive songs. However, after asking a Colombian if it really felt like Christmas music, they explained to me that the songs are cherished more for the memories they represent than for the way they sound, and that Colombia had been through so many dark periods in history, it was important to hold on to the good memories of years gone past.
Being in a country like Colombia during this festive period has taught me that you don’t need to identify as religious to participate in these Christmas traditions. Just like at home, at the end of the day, the defining feature will always be friends and family sharing moments together as they welcome in the New Year.
Do you celebrate Christmas?