Not all Spanish students at our school head home for the holidays. Many students stay in Medellin to enjoy Colombian Christmas traditions, which are not only interesting, but this time of year is the perfect chance to immerse in the Colombian culture.
We interviewed some of our host-homestay families on how they celebrate a Catholic Christmas in Colombia. Their answers and our first-hand experience provided us with insights into the Christmas culture in this country.
Christmas is a significant celebration in Colombia, and for Paisas (people of Medellin), in their city, it is even more so. All the celebrations put the family at the center of all the festivities.
Some of the most interesting Colombian Christmas traditions in Medellín include:
1. La Alborada
This is the noisiest night of the year! Signifying the arrival of December (on Nov 30th) at midnight (or more often before midnight), the sky is filled with fireworks, gunpowder, firecrackers, and smoke. It will be a night you will never forget because the fireworks continue all night long, even until the early morning. The city has banned the use of gunpowder now with stiff fines for anyone who is caught with it, but that doesn’t stop any Paisas from ringing in December with a bang!
2. El Alumbrado
This is the infamous Christmas lights festival and Colombians are crazy about lights, and Paisas are even more so. In fact, the Medellin Christmas lights just made the top 5 list of all Christmas light displays in the world in 2017 by National Geographic, and in this year they are celebrating their 50th year of the lights celebration. Medellin is the best Christmas lights displays in the country (this includes Envigado). Each year, a new theme is developed, and it takes weeks to hang and prepare the lights for December. In Envigado, the lights are turned on the last weekend of November with live concerts in the park. The key areas to see the lights are in Parque Norte, Envigado, Sabaneta, as well as various other light displays around El Centro, Parque Poblado, Itagüe and Nutibara Hill at Pueblito Paisa.
In years past, there were spectacular lights streaming across the river, but construction and changes have limited the lights to the parks. Unlike other countries, the lights typically do not turn off until January 8th. In Medellin, they stay up until February and are turned one more time during Colombiatex Inexmoda (Medellin’s fashion week).
3. El Día/El Noche de las Velitas
(The Night of the Candles) – This is a beautiful and scenic tradition that is best seen in local neighborhoods. This celebration is only held on the evening of December 7th leading up to the Immaculate Conception on December 8th, which is also a Catholic and national holiday. Each candle is lit to signify a path for the Virgin Mary to bring good wishes for the new year and thanks for the good blessings she has brought Colombians to the current year.
Candles are lit at dark around 7 pm outside homes, on the streets, and along sidewalks. Families sit outside and pray, sing songs, and make a pot of Sancocho (traditional chicken stew). The best way of witnessing this night is just by walking through the neighborhoods in Envigado and Laureles. This year, Colombia Immersion hosted a special Language Exchange that night to commemorate the event.
4. Las Novenas
Colombians celebrate the nine nights before Christmas. From December 16th to Dec 24th, families get together each night to pray, recite Christmas carols and read passages from the bible. Often, the Nativity scene in their homes or neighborhood is where it happens. Even apartment lobbies decorate with an elaborate Nativity scene (El Pesebre) where residents join in the evening prayer and sing Christmas carols. In many countries, Christmas carols are played all December long, not in Colombia. They start just during Las Novenas.
Beyond the Christmas lights and nativity scenes, it’s really anything goes as there is no particular way of dressing up your home in Medellin. Usually, there is a Christmas tree. There is often some décors that feature Santa Claus, the Baby Jesus, snowmen, and candles.
No Colombian Christmas tradition is complete without FOOD. Typically, a Christmas dinner consists of pork (called Murano) or chicken with salad, rice, potatoes, vegetables, and desserts. Sometimes, a whole pig is prepared for the holidays. There are plenty of sweets in typical Colombian fashion. But there’s no traditional turkey dinner for Colombians!
Lots of sweet delicacies like Natilla are made for the holidays. During the El Noche de las Velitas at our Envigado school, students made a batch of these goodies. Natilla can be best described as a sweet caramel-like pudding, served with Buñelos –one of the perfect snacks of fried dough and cheese balls. For Christmas dinner, our homestay families also mentioned that cheesecake, Arequipe and other baked sweets may also make an appearance.
7. Christmas Eve Is The Big Night
The big celebration is on Christmas Eve, December 24th. This night is an essential intimate gathering for family (and friends) in celebrating the birth of Jesus. This is where the major dinner happens, often accompanied by Aguardiente, rum, and wine (usually served for special occasions) and an exchange of gifts, called Alguinados.
Of course, Colombianos want to keep the party going, so when all that food is digesting, families partake in fun and silly games that are played with everyone. Christmas Day is often the day to visit the church, relax, and eat the leftovers after the big night with the family.
If you think the Colombian Christmas traditions stop after the 25th, you are mistaken! They continue on after Christmas and into the New Year’s celebrations!
As a student at Colombia Immersion, there are lots of opportunities to enjoy the Christmas season here. If you stay with our homestays, you will get a likely receive a special invitation to enjoy their Colombian Christmas traditions with their families.
So if you want to enjoy Christmas in Colombia, we are still open for classes for the Christmas season! (Except Christmas Day.)