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December in Colombia means several things with names that are quite likely as of yet unrecognizable to you: novenas and alumbrados, natillas and buñuelos, though if you spend any time in Colombia during this time of year you will quickly become well acquainted with them.
In Cali, of course, December also means the internationally famous Feria de Cali, beginning the 25th and lasting until the 31st, but first we have to get through December! (But here’s a video to tempt you, anyway. Full disclosure: a couple of the musicians are good friends. But I´m unbiased, I promise! Maybe.)
Returning to novenas and alumbrados. Colombia is a Catholic country, so most of the December celebrations are rooted in this tradition. La novena is a Colombian tradition that goes from the 16th to the 24th—9 days, thus the name novena. It’s normally a neighborhood affair, and each night another family takes a turn hosting it. Each night different prayers are sung, focused around welcoming the birth of Jesus. As an American Jew, talking about Catholic traditions anywhere in the world is a stretch for me, but it seems that the novena is a Colombian-born advent practice, the nine days representative of the nine months of gestation before the birth of Jesus.
Many houses and apartment buildings have pesebres, nativity scenes, but don’t expect plastic, glowing figures—these are elaborate, often homemade affairs, with a definite kitsch factor that can include rivers made of aluminum foil, colored cellophane, and dramatic painted backgrounds. The pesebre plays a central part in the novenas, welcoming the baby Jesus.
At every novena, amongst the singing and the socializing, you will be offered cinnamon and clove-spiced sweets typical of the season—chewy, sugar cane-based natilla; fried, cheesy buñuelos (not exactly sweet but not exactly savory, either); desamargado, sweet green papaya conserves; fried crispy hojaldras; brevas en almibar, preserved green figs; fresh queso cuajada and possibly manjar blanco, aka fudgy Colombian milk caramel. If you are really slick, you will not spill red wine over your very gracious hosts´ beige carpet, as I did the first time I went to a novena. I guess that’s why Jews don’t normally go to these things, in any country. It may also be why it’s more typical to serve aguardiente, a clear anise-based spirit, and ron (Colombian rum is dark and delicious, if you talk about Bacardi they will run you out of town, and rightly so), where there’s less of a chance of your guests wreaking havoc on your furniture.
Lest this sound like a very adult kind of celebration, let me tell you that kids love las novenas both because of the endless parade of sweets and because there are often gift raffles at the end. Another thing that kids love during this time of year is the alumbrado, the enormous public light display. If you’ve never seen a Colombian alumbrado, it’s a bit hard to describe, because it’s on a much larger scale than anything I’ve ever seen in the U.S. except for maybe Disneyland. Countless life-sized light displays, normally with an annual theme, are installed either along a central river or another prominent public location. As if that weren’t enough, many local businesses have elaborate, and I mean elaborate displays, often combining the concepts of the pesebre and the alumbrado into one big party of overgrown livestock and cartoon-like middle-Eastern buildings (in the photo below, the lights are turned off as it’s obviously daytime).
There are also specific festival days: December 7th is El Día de las Velitas, the day of the candles, where candles are lit to worship the Virgin of the Immaculate Concepción (aka Jesus`s mother) and the alumbrado is turned on for the first time. The night of December 24th, La Nochebuena, is the main Christmas event, normally consistenting of a huge family meal, music, dancing and drinking, and children anxious to see what el niño Jesus, not Santa, brought them. You will probably eat enormous tamales. You will most likely drink way too much ron or aguardiente or whisky. You will probably dance with all the senior citizens at the party while they sing along to song after song that you’ve never heard of. And you will have a fabulous time, even if everything is rather foreign at first, even if you’re used to spending Christmas eating Chinese food (which is what Jews do), because they know how to do December right in Colombia.