From Alabama to Colombia: And So This Is Christmas

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And so this is Christmas, and what have you done?

That line by John Lennon shrieked to mind this past week. In a 10-minute span, I entered three Bogota shops. In each, identical children’s voices, identical recordings of identical Colombian holiday carols, assaulted me.

The first encounter, in a Juan Valdez coffee shop, unnerved me. The children’s choir poured from an in-store sound system. Little voices, slightly off-key, sang spirited Colombian carols in high-pitched, pestering, meant-to-be-cute Spanish. I found the carols annoying, like mosquitos in the dark of night.

Still, I listened culturally, wondering what possessed a business to put on holiday white noise like this if it actually wanted people to buy its products.

My second stop, a pastry shop, made me flinch. The same relentless chant of cheer hit me in the face. This new sing-songy caroling aroused my inner Grinch. I bought a roscón, a little Colombian guava-filled pastry. I ran, shamefully, without leaving a tip.

I could hear the little voices laying a guilt trip on me as I left. Imagine the Children of the Damned singing to Baby Jesus. What was going on with traditional Colombian Christmas music? The same music in a third consecutive store convinced me this was The Twilight Zone.

Con mi burrito sabanero
voy camino de Belén
Con mi burrito sabanero
voy camino de Belén
si me ven si me ven
voy camino de Belén
si me ven si me ven
voy camino de Belén

(My rough translation)

With my little burro from the plains
I make my way to Bethlehem
With my little burro from the plains
I make my way to Bethlehem
If you see me, if you see me
I make my way to Bethlehem
If you see me, if you see me
I make my way to Bethlehem

Colombians call their carols villancicos, and this particular one, “El Burrito Sabanero,” can be considered the “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” of the nation. Every kid knows it … and from the in-store soundtracks, every kid records it. Maddeningly off-key.

I returned, grinching, to my fiancee’s apartment.

“What’s with the same kids and the same soundtrack for the Christmas music in every store?” I asked. “Here in a land of infinite musical forms (vallenato, cumbia, porro, merecumbe, gaita, carranga, currulao, joropo, bambuco, pasillo, vals, champeta, salsa, and, yes, rock), how can there be just one kind of Christmas music that plays in every store?”

“Get used to it,” she said. “That’s what Christmas sounds like here.”

“Children?” I asked.

“Children. Sometimes adults singing like children.”

“Singing the same three songs?” I protested.

“We have lots of villancicos. They just sound like three songs to you … gringo.”

“And Colombians get sentimental and nostalgic and full of peace-on-earth when they hear these kids stomachaching about little burros and Baby Jesus?” I probed.

“Colombians get sentimental and nostalgic and full of peace-on-earth, yes.”

“The same way those of us in the United States get sentimental when we hear Bing Crosby sing ‘White Christmas’ or Robert Goulet sing ‘The Christmas Song’ (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)?”

“You know what Colombians think when we hear those songs by Bing Crosby and Robert Goulet?” She rebutted.

“No,” I listened.

“We can’t tell if it’s a Christmas song or just another pop song. Your Christmas music sounds exactly like all the rest of your music to us. When we hear villancicos, they sound different from other music. They sound like the holidays.”

And so this is Christmas … in Colombia.

Photo: Liz, CC-BY

In the States, we love to morph traditional carols so that they blend into the mainstream of the moment. We want traditional tunes to sound more up-to-date—more swinging, more jiving, more toe-tapping, hip-shaking, country-fried, alt-indie, more whatever gives an old chestnut more fire, a new twist of life.

Colombians want the opposite. They want their Christmas carols to sound exactly like the ones their great-grandparents taught them to sing and that the great-grandparents of those great-grandparents taught them to sing when they were kids. In their little-kid voices.

I had this lesson reinforced shortly before Christmas.

Colombians celebrate the holidays with novenas, a lovely series of family/friend meetings during the nine nights leading up to Christmas Day (which Colombians celebrate on December 24). Novenas are unique to Colombia, Ecuador, and Venezuela. Families or acquaintances gather for food and drink, then read passages from a 300-year-old scripturally based text. They sing traditional carols between novena readings, finish with prayers, then sit for hours talking politics, sports, gossip, kids, whatever. It’s like nine Christmas dinners, with songs and scriptures and stories shared with people you love.

Novenas mean a bountiful table. Our last one held small, bite-sized Colombian sausages, farm cheese, fresh strawberries (yes, they grow here in December) dipped in chocolate, a dense, sweet, delicious poppy-seed cake, and traditional novena dishes. Natilla is a kind of corn-powder and brown sugar pudding. Bunuelos, are not tiny fried Spanish film directors, but tiny fried brown globes like doughnut holes, with cheese inside.

Our hosts poured sips of wine and rum, with Coca-Cola for the kids. The night passed in conversation, traditional Colombian folk music playing in the background.

All at once, Frank Sinatra’s golden voice filled the room, his famous version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”

Up popped the perplexed head of one of the Colombian kids. He looked 11 years old or so, playing some game with the three other boys under the Christmas tree.

“Who put on the sad music?” he yelled.

I looked at Adela. Adela looked at me.

I understood.

The next afternoon, I searched YouTube for Sinatra’s Christmas classic. People from the United States had left many comments (printed here as posted, typos and all):

Nothing beats the warm fuzzy feeling you get from the classic Christmas songs sung by the classic singers.

Im in the biggest Christmas mood ever. This is the best time of the year

Ever notice How Christmas music make’s you feel Warm and Loving? Not just this one,But All Christmas Music ? It’s Something in the Human Heart,Perhaps the Way you were Brought up ? Christmas IS There…………..

Thank goodness, this holiday season, for our differences. We learn from those, and we grow to understand the world. A bewildering variety of tastes and tinctures make this a wonderful life.

Yes, a wonderful life. Like the movie title.

Adela and I plan to watch that movie between now and Christmas. She’s never seen it. I have a feeling it’s not a classic here.

I’ve raved about it. I’ve told Adela that Jimmy Stewart gives, in my opinion, the finest performance by any actor in screen history. I’ve told her I have my annual good cry once a year, every year, at the end of that movie.

I’m interested to see how this unique story from the good-old USA will affect Adela, my interpreter of all-things-Colombian.

Will she be deeply moved, as I always am? Or will this movie fall into the so-what file with Bing, Frank and Goulet?

I never know quite what to expect in this surprising new world where I’ve lived in a state of constant discovery the past year.

And so it is Christmas. Happy holidays to one and all.

Top photo: julianasur, CC-BY

Charles McNair is Paste’s Books Editor emeritus. He served the magazine as writer, critic and editor from 2005-2015.