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Christmas in Columbia:
a Flame Symbolizing the Light of the World.
Fireworks light up the night sky above Plaza Bolivar in Bogota, Colombia as onlookers honor the Virgin Mary on the eve of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.
From the moment Christians around the world light the first Advent candle, they set in motion a custom that will be repeated many times throughout the Christmas season. Candles, after all, literally light the way, just as Jesus’ disciples said their leader did through his teachings.
Candles are a constant illuminating presence during Christmas in Columbia. The country’s 47 million people are overwhelmingly Roman Catholic and are said to be the most devout followers of the faith in South America. So it follows that they would assign a divine characteristic to short votives and long tapers alike. To Colombians, the candle wax is a metaphor for Christ’s body while the wick represents his soul. The flame, of course, symbolizes the Light of the World.
After they mark the beginning of Advent, the people in South America’s fourth largest country gather again to light candles to honor the Virgin Mary on December 7, the eve of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. It is said, from those who view the country from overhead on this night, that the country literally becomes awash with a warm, soft glow, as candles are lit from Venezuela to the north, Brazil to the east, Peru and Ecuador to the south and the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea to the west.
On the actual dia de las velitas (day of the candles), Colombians also hang lanterns and string lights along streets, sidewalks, balconies, porches, driveways and even their cars to mark Christmas in Columbia. And of course they light up their churches during Mass, sometimes holding tapers aflame throughout the service.
Western culture has influenced Colombian Christmas traditions, but only to a point. The people in this so-called “gateway to South America” country have come to embrace Santa Claus and the Christmas tree, which they decorate with lights, ornaments and cotton puffs designed to resemble snow. But unlike people in the West, many of whom begin decorating their homes for Christmas right after Thanksgiving, Colombians wait until December 16, which is known as Novena.
For the next nine days, families pray daily near the nativity scene, or pesebre. Fittingly, the cradle for el nino dios (the baby Jesus) stays empty until Christmas Eve and only colored candles are lit. White candles, which symbolize purity and new life, are saved for Christmas Day.
Christmas in Columbia: a Roosters Mass on Christmas Eve
Many Colombians attend Misa de Gallo, or rooster’s Mass, on Christmas Eve since it is believed that a rooster crowed at the moment the baby Jesus was born. Many churches are a fragrant wonderland, as Colombia is one of the world’s largest producers of roses, carnations, chrysanthemums and orchids.
Many Colombian children open their gifts on Christmas Day, then look forward to a feast that expounds on their usual taste for foods that are rich and heavily seasoned but not necessarily spicy. Generally, the menu is a mixture of Indian and Spanish traditions and begins with empanadas, a flaky pastry turnover filled with beef or chicken, cheese, rice and spices.
Making tamales is a special and painstaking tradition for many Colombian families because the banana leaf wrappers must be marinated overnight and steamed for about three hours. The wrappers may look and smell appetizing, but they are not edible; only the stuffing mixture – usually pork or chicken, along with potatoes, eggs and vegetables – can be consumed.
Families who forego tamales may favor other dishes to celebrate Christmas in Columbia, such as bandeja paisa, the country’s national dish that is essentially a large combination platter that usually features steak, pork rinds and chorizo served on a bed of rice and red beans and topped with avocado and sweet banana chips.
Other favorite main courses include: chunchullo (poultry or cow intestines that have been stuffed or fried); fritanga (another combination plate consisting of beef, chicken, ribs, sausages and chunchullo); and lechona (a pig stuffed with rice, yellow peas, green onions and herbs that is cooked for nearly 12 hours in a clay oven).
Christmas in Columbia.wouldn’t be complete without some favorite side dishes, including arepa (a pancake made with cornmeal that is topped with butter); arroz con coco (a sweet rice dish); frijoles con garra (a red bean dish that is thickened with pigs' feet); hogoa (a traditional Colombian sauce made with onions and tomatoes); mote de queso con hogoa (made of chopped yams and cheese and usually fried); and quesillos (banana leaves that are stuffed with cream cheese).
If there’s room for dessert after such a filling meal, many Colombians savor natilla (a sweet custard that is similar to vanilla pudding); buñuelos (a dough made of white cheese curd that is fried until golden brown); and manjar blanco (a creamy dessert similar to dulce de leche).
Though Colombia is world famous for its coffee, jugo is the favored Christmas drink. Made with orange juice, honey, milk, almond extract and served over crushed ice, this tasty drink is often made with peaches but can feature other fruits as well.
Christmas in Columbia comes to a close on January 6, the day of the Epiphany, which marks the day that the three kings visited the baby Jesus in Bethlehem. But in Colombia, it ends with two unique festivals: the Dia de Negritos (Day of the Black Ones) on January 5 and the Fiesta de los Blanquitos (Festival of the White Ones) on January 6.
The Day of the Black Ones originated in 1607, when black slaves complained that they worked every day of the year, year round, without a day off. When the king of Spain granted them one “freedom day,” the slaves celebrated by using coal to paint people’s faces.
Today, the tradition continues with young boys chasing after girls in the streets and smearing their faces with black shoe polish. In reality, anybody who walks through the streets of Colombia is likely to become covered with black polish, so they venture outdoors on this day at their own risk.
The real fun takes place in the afternoon with parades, strolling musicians and people dressed in masquerade – another hallmark of Christmas in Columbia. When night falls, the festivities often spill into social clubs and people’s homes and continue until dawn. The wise elders get their rest, for they know that “white” will soon become the focus of the Festival of the White Ones.
On this day, boys again run through the streets, this time throwing flour or talcum powder on everyone they see. By the end of the day, mounds of white powder cover many streets and sidewalks throughout the country. The real mischief-makers – young boys and adults alike -- toss water over balconies and rooftops, creating a sticky melee.
Interestingly enough, the origins of the “white” festival are not as commonly known. Some people maintain that the day is meant to replicate an incident in the 1900s, when a prankster snatched a lady’s powder puff and dusted his friends with it, creating a small mess on the street.
Traditional Colombians scoff at this oft-repeated story, saying that the Day of the Black Ones and Festival of the White Ones are simply fun and lively ways to end the season in a distinctive, almost Mardi Gras-like style. Then, remembering their special affinity for light, they are sometimes quick to add that the two capstone days ensure that no other country can literally hold a candle to Christmas in Colombia.
Christmas Celebrations in Colombia. < http://travel.mapsofworld.com/colombia/christmas.html >
Colombian Culture. < http://colombiaemb.org/node/1331 >
DuBois, Jill. Cultures of the World: Colombia. Tarrytown: Marshall Cavendish Benchmark, 2002.
DeCapua, Sarah. Discovering Cultures: Colombia. New York: Benchmark Books-Marshall Cavendish, 2004.
Jeffery, Yvonne. The Everything Family Christmas Book. Avon: Adams Media, 2008.
Morrison, Marion. Colombia: Enchantment of the World. Chicago: Children’s Press, 2008.
Seow, Lynelle (ed.). Colombia: A Portrait of the Country Through its Festivals and Traditions. Danbury: Grolier, 2004.
South America Travel Guide: < http://www.southamerica.cl/ >
My Colombian Recipes. < http://www.mycolombianrecipes.com/ >