I remember as a little girl, the absolute thrill I felt during Christmas; and it wasn’t just about the presents and the treats. In my birth country, Colombia, we didn’t get presents from Santa Claus (or Papa Noel). Nope, it was all about sharing in the birthday of Baby Jesus (or El Nino Jesus). When I was a little girl, I used to think him the MOST generous of all birthday boys because it was he who left presents under the tree for me if I had been half way decent throughout the year (luckily, he was a forgiving sort).
Our faith and the celebratory mood of Christmas in Colombia always go hand in hand. Navidad- or Christmas in Spanish really starts on December 7th. At dusk, the lighting of “las velitas” or the candles happens all over the country. Children and adults light candles and lanterns to make tunnels of soft, white light that beautifully illuminate the most humble of neighborhoods, to the most spectacular streets and churches.
This is done to celebrate the day of “La Virgen de la Immaculada Concepcion”- or the day of the Virgin of the Immaculate conception- on December 8th. And since this is Colombia, there’s always a fiesta for every occasion, including music, bunuelos (savory cheese fritters), cornmeal empanadas stuffed with meat and potatoes and the occasional firework display. By December 16th, the Novenas (or daily prayers) begin for nine days until Christmas Eve, which is reserved for midnight mass followed by a feast at home.
Meant to remind Colombians about the true meaning of Christmas, the Novenas are also a good excuse to gather family, sing villancicos (Spanish Christmas carols), and eat Christmas foods including my favorite- natilla (a set custard made with cinnamon that tastes like firm dulce de leche), served with a side of bunuelos, hot chocolate for the kids and a shot of aguardiente (literally “firewater”) – an anise-flavored spirit made from sugar cane, for the adults.
Roasted pig is always on the menu this time of year as are tamales, plantain-leaf steamed cornmeal masa packets wrapped around mildly chicken or pork and veggies. But my favorite tradition has to do with engaging children to think about how lucky they are.