On the 12 days of Christmas 2016, Colombia gave me …
12 Fried Buñuelos
Imagine deep-fried doughnut holes, but orbs with no glaze, and with their wheat-and-yeast batter savored by grated white costeño cheese, a little salty to my own gringo palate, but delicious. These round brown treats, artfully stacked in pyramids, arrive on platters at Colombian holiday tables. Guests grab them fast (pickpockets train this way), but don’t worry—another tall pyramid waits in the kitchen. Then another, and another. Remember the scene in Cool Hand Luke when Paul Newman’s character bets that he can eat 50 boiled eggs? This holiday season, I will eat 50 buñuelos. (Not all at once … and the last few may need some butter for lubrication …)
11 Stores All Playing The Same Villancicos
Christmas gets spooky in Colombia. Drop by a neighborhood pastry shop, Dulcinea, and you hear the cheerful chanting of a children’s chorus from the sound system. Walk next door to the Juan Valdez for good coffee … and you hear the cheerful chanting of a children’s chorus from the sound system. The traditional songs (villancicos) are known to every Colombian, in the same sweet, blood-curdling, slightly off-key children’s voices. The little demons cheerfully chant in the fruit market and the mall and in restaurants and … my God … They. Are. Everywhere! Is there no escape?
10 Days Without The Kids
Adela’s two kids will be with their dad through Christmas Day this year. She and I tended them, out of school and out of their routines, for 20 days before that. The house felt very empty the day the small people left. Adela and I crept from room to room, disoriented. Where was the crazed practice on the snare drum? Where was the play box, emptied and scattered like an exploded Toys “R” Us? Suddenly childless, we pinched curtains apart and peeked suspiciously out at the world. We dared one another to leave the apartment building, then came scurrying back, giddy and breathless and a little frightened. Soon, we actually went out to a restaurant and walked arm in arm around the neighborhood looking at Christmas decorations. It felt … like a holiday!
For nine nights leading up to Christmas, Colombians gather in homes with family and friends to hold novenas. These meetings commemorate the journey of Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem, and there’s a formal text that many adult Colombians know by heart after attending hundreds of novenas in their lifetimes. Traditional songs, including cheerful children chanting villancicos (shudder!), raise spirits between readings, and a table loaded with holiday foods awaits at the end of the night. Warm, with true peace-on-earth spirit, novenas put the ‘holy’ in the Colombian ‘holydays.’
8 Tiny Reindeer, Plus Rudolph
One apartment over from mine, an ornamental holiday reindeer jazzed up with blue lights raises and lowers its horny little head. Colombians know all about Santa’s tiny reindeer, and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer stands apart as the one gringo Christmas tune most Colombians recognize. You even hear the original Gene Autry Rudolph playing from time to time on the radio.
7 The Day of the Little Candles
Christmas in Colombia launches on December 7, a holiday for La Virgen de la Inmaculada Concepción, or The Virgin of the Immaculate Conception. It’s also El Día de las Velitas, the day of the little candles. This wonderful celebration has no real equivalent in the States. At dusk, Colombian households line windows and balconies with skinny candles—millions of them in Bogotá, and tens of millions more throughout the country. A walk through the neighborhood feels like a stroll through the Milky Way—imagine infinite lines of light, soft and serene, glowing in every direction. The illuminations serve the same purpose as runway lights; they guide the path of the Virgin Mary to homes and hearts, where she bestows her blessings.
6 Traditional Colombian Holiday Dishes
Buñuelos? Check! Ajiaco (Colombian chicken-and-potato soup, garnished to taste with avocado, cream, rice, and capers)? Check! Natilla (a custard of simmered milk with brown cane sugar)? Check! Empanadas (fried crescent-shaped pies stuffed with ground beef or chicken, plus egg or raisin or olive or mushroom)? Check! Tamales (spiced meat or chicken wrapped in corn dough and steamed inside a plantain leaf)? Check! Sancocho (a traditional soup made with meat, chicken, or fish … plus three varieties of potato)? Check! Eat, drink, be merry—tomorrow you may die(t)!
5 (Thousand) Jews in Bogotá
Menorahs blaze few and far between in Colombia’s capital city. Ashkenazi, Sephardic, and German Jews have a presence, but the numbers are paltry—Bogotá, with 10 million inhabitants, counts only 5,000 Jews. Why? One theory holds that a Cartagena branch office of the Spanish Inquisition in the 1700s treated Jews badly, and word spread. Another suggests Jews fled Colombia … and took their wealth … during the violence of Colombia’s past 100 years. Support for this second theory may lie in neighboring Venezuela. By some estimates, half the Jewish population has left that country since its 1990s socialist turn under Hugo Chávez. Happy Hanukkah to you good brothers and sisters, regardless of numbers!
4 Kinds of Holiday Drinks
From mild to wild: Consider Aguapanela as a tea made with brown cane sugar (panela) instead of tea leaves. Colombians serve it with … surprise! … cheese. You sink the queso into the sweet hot drink, and eat it with a spoon. Chocolate en leche con coco … hot chocolate … also arrives with cheese, this too dunked or drowned in the hot brew. (I consider Colombian chocolate, by the way, the standard by which all other chocolates should be judged.) Refajo can be considered a cocktail or shandy – you mix a favorite beer with Colombiana, a popular local soft drink. Finally, there’s sabajón, Colombian eggnog. Brandy or bourbon for a kick? That’s for sissies! Colombians add aguardiente, a powerful alcoholic spike made from anise and sugar cane. (You WILL need a hangover remedy.)
3 FABULOUS Wise Men!
A flamboyant hairdresser on Calle 106 some years ago outrageously remodeled his salon as a French castle. This holiday, the castle added a street-side nativity scene, of a sort. The three wise men look something like Liberace, RuPaul, and Juan Gabriel. Fab!
2 Baby Jesus
In Colombia, Santa doesn’t slip down the chimneys and leave gifts beneath Christmas trees. That’s the work of … Baby Jesus! Every child wakes with shining eyes on Christmas morning and rushes into the living room to see what surprises Baby Jesus brought in the night. Sometimes kids ask, just as they do with Santa, how Baby Jesus could possibly carry all those toys for girls and boys worldwide. The answer? He’s BABY JESUS! Now don’t ask any more questions!
1 One Dove of Peace
In this country, Peace on Earth is not just a wish on some snowy Christmas card. Colombia has endured a civil war for nearly three generations, a conflict that has killed nearly 100 people every week for 52 years. A peace accord now rests in the hands of the Colombian legislature. Pray with us, please.
Season’s greetings to all!
Image: Ken Douglas, CC-BY
Charles McNair is Paste’s Books Editor emeritus. He served the magazine as writer, critic and editor from 2005-2015.