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The Christmas Trigger

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Oh, how distant we used to think we are from each other (I mean, people in Colombia and the US), but how similar we behave.  That’s what I thought when, in the middle of October, I heard this peal of bells on the radio. Then I realized I was not that far, you also had it, hohoho: the precious Christmas spirit!

After spending twenty-four out of my twenty-five Christmases in Colombia, I thought this year it would be completely different; and it was, but not that much. First of all, from October I could see the supermarkets offering tree decorations together with Halloween customs… early bird deals, why not? Also, as the right time was coming, I could feel it in the air: people were happier, more willing to give, more willing to share. There was seasonal food, too. It seems like cookie trees really work hard this time of the year… How nice!

Natilla, buñuelo and hojuela

All of the above is pretty similar to a piece of what we have. And I say a piece because most Colombians really go nuts about Christmas. It’s not hard to see why, because for many it equals at least four weeks of unstoppable celebration, partying, thousands of pieces of natilla (a dessert everyone makes, shares and gets sick of by the end of the month), buñuelos (they’re different from the Mexican version), hojuelas (I think these are closer to the Mexican buñuelos), barbecues, family, partying, and sometimes traveling. Did I mention partying? Yeah, that’s Christmas. Oh, and of course, the bizarre cultural mixture of the 5 or 6 ft. plastic tree and the pesebre (nativity), the fireworks (they’re illegal but still extremely common), and the lightings (both the ones you put all over the front of your house, and the ones on the streets, which gather millions of light bulbs)!

About that, Medellin was ranked by National Geographic as one of the top ten places in the world to see holiday lights. They’re very beautiful and each year they come up with a new theme. Every average Medellinense goes to see them, and also the city receives thousands of tourists who come to take the tours, maybe sitting on a chiva and drinking aguardiente to make it even more traditional.

Apart from the parades, the free concerts, and the sightseeing, there are the more traditional celebrations. Since we’re officially a Catholic country, most families meet every night from December 16th until Christmas Eve to pray the novena together. Kids get candy at the end and they might attend several novenas every night… I don’t think they’re very devout, though, they just want more candy ;)

Día de las velitas/Chiva/Alumbrados/Pesebre

And even before the novenas, we celebrate El día de las velitas (Day of the Candles) on December 7th… and 8th.

On Christmas Eve, families gather and make a special dinner, although there’s no standard food for this day, as far as I know. Midnight is the time when kids unwrap the presents that Papá Noel and El Niño Dios somehow brought together; they usually remain hidden until that moment, and not under the tree.

For New Year’s Eve, you might want to spend more time with friends. After the countdown there are kisses, hugs, cheers…! Some would eat twelve grapes for good luck; others would run around the block carrying a piece of luggage if they want to get to travel the next year; others might wear yellow underwear as a way to make their wishes come true. Again, this is a strange and fun mixture of beliefs.

I admit I kind of like the madness we have; it’s not just three days of celebration but the whole month and a little bit more. What I don’t like about it is how the way people celebrate Christmas sometimes triggers dangerous things. Negligent people, who shouldn’t be handling fireworks themselves in the first place, also let their kids play with them; some drink much more alcohol than they should; there’s too much noise on the streets on weekends, and sometimes during weekdays… It is a matter of lack of common sense.

Now, about my twenty-fifth Christmas, it was great. I had the chance to travel around the US with my boyfriend Daniel, who came from Colombia, for almost three weeks. We went to Washington DC (where I got disappointed by the National Tree; too little), Sarasota FL (where they have Siesta Beach, ranked as the #1 beach in America!), Tampa FL, Chicago IL, Milwaukee WI… I even had Christmas dinner with some family I have in Florida.

At the end, even when there’s not much craziness around, it felt great to be back in Salem. I felt I was coming back to a quiet but great home.

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