People ask us: “What’s it like to spend Christmas in Colombia?” Now that we’re finally spending the whole month of December here, we’re getting a broader picture of that most festive month of the year. And we’re having a great time!
Here are our random thoughts and impressions about Colombian customs and traditions for Navidad.
The Alumbrados (Christmas Lights) are Spectacular
Colombia is known all over the world for its elaborate Christmas lighting displays, and Medellín really goes all out. This year, we had a chance to visit three different sites around Medellín where the Alumbrados are glowing their brightest: Parque Norte, Parques del Rio, and Sabaneta.
Here are some of our photo highlights. You can click on one of the photos to view them one by one.
Little Candles with Lots of Heart
There’s nothing like the glow of candle light to create a festive, peaceful holiday mood. It reminds me a bit of the southwestern custom of luminarias that I grew up with in West Texas.
Colombia’s version of that takes place on December 7, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Also known as El Día de las Velitas, or Day of the Little Candles, that day marks the unofficial start of the Christmas season in Colombia. Many days in advance, you’ll see street vendors everywhere hawking packages of small, multi-colored candles.
Last year, we wondered what the candle sales were all about until we took a stroll through our neighborhood park on the evening of 7 de Diciembre. The park was filled with friends and families gathered to light their candles, tell stories, eat buñuelos y natilla (more about that below) and just enjoy each other’s company. Guitar music and singing rose in the air. Kids danced and played. It was truly magical.
Buñelos y Natilla – An Important Holiday Treat
If there’s one treat that’s emblematic of Christmas in Colombia, it’s buñelos and natilla. Buñuelos are little fried balls of corn meal and cheese that are just as delicious as they sound, especially if they’re fresh and hot. (Drizzle them with honey, and you’ll send me right over the moon!)
Natilla is a little harder to pin down – it’s a kind of custard, very sweet, and sometimes it includes grated coconut. But it often has an almost gelatin-like texture.
When a Tamale Isn’t a Tamale but a Hallaca
A couple of decades ago, John and I were invited to a holiday tamale-making party by one of my co-workers, a gal whose family was Mexican. We’ll never forget the fun of creating those luscious little packages of goodness in their cornhusk wrappers, and then consuming them as fast as we could make them!
Having grown up in a small West Texas town near the border of Mexico, I was always aware what a big Christmastime tradition tamales are for Latino folks. That’s true throughout Latin America, but everywhere except Mexico, tamales are wrapped in banana leaves instead of corn husks.
Here in Colombia, you’ll find traditional tamales and also an interesting variation, something called a fiambre. It’s more like a complete little meal, wrapped up in a convenient banana leaf package. But I digress.
In Venezuela, tamales are known as hallacas (pronounced ah-JHA-cas). Our housekeeper, Carmen, and her family are Venezuelan immigrants living in Medellin, and last week she brought us two hallacas as a Christmas treat. They were delicious, and one difference we noticed right away was the olives and capers, two things you won’t find in Colombian tamales (or Mexican ones, for that matter).
Here’s a fun video of Carmen and her family making hallacas (used with her permission).
Any Excuse for a Party
As we mentioned in our previous post about our year anniversary of living in Medellín, we’ve joined up with a free exercise class offered by INDER, the Medellín parks and rec department. It’s a marriage of Zumba, salsa dancing, and circuit training with weights, and it’s a great workout. After only a few months, the ladies of the group have accepted us as two of their own, even though we don’t share a common language.
For the last class of the year, the group threw exercising out the window and rolled out a fun and relaxing Christmas brunch, complete with gifts for our instructor, Francisco, and all kinds of Colombian holiday treats. Including – you guessed it – buñuelos y natilla!
Musica por Memorias
Music is a huge part of any Colombian family celebration, and that’s especially true at Christmastime. Certain songs are almost guaranteed to trigger strong memories of Christmases past among Colombianos, and this is one of them – Cariñito. Take a listen – and I dare you to keep your feet still!
Thank you for reading this totally random post about our first Christmas in Medellín! Have you experienced interesting holiday customs and traditions that differ from your own? We’d love to hear about them!
¡Feliz Navidad y un Prospero 2020!
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