The Month Before Christmas

Christmas is a festival of lights in Colombia. Town plazas are covered in festive (and entirely unrelated) lights - hanging from trees, stuck in the ground, strung over arches. Reindeer, Santas, stars, bells, and less traditional features; squirrels, bears, and even flashing models of the ancient carved stone statues for which San Agustín is famed. Shrines of the Virgin Mary on the roadside and at street corners are entwined in tinsel, and somewhat suspiciously glittery Papa Noel cardboard cutouts are pasted onto walls.

Whilst in the UK, the start of December bestows on radio DJs the privilege of playing a Christmas song every ten minutes, and burdens the postie with hoards of Christmas cards, bursting from his or her sack, in Bogotá fireworks take centre stage.

On the 7th December, coinciding with El Día de Las Velitas (The Day of the Little Candles) , Plaza Bolivar put on a spectacle of lights, music, and ... fountains. Tacky, or simply dull, as it may sound to ye sceptics out there, the soaring, colourful waters, their movements choreographed to fit accompanying orchestral strains, were quite something to behold.

Walking home from the show was also somewhat magical. Throughout the streets of Colombia, people light seven candles in front of their houses to celebrate the eve of the Immaculate Conception. Candles also sit in Chinese take-away boxes on curbs, float sky-ward in lanterns, and illuminate concerts in the streets.

Folk music and latino tunes remain the bus drivers´ favourites; 'Jingle Bells' is reserved for military marching bands, and a high-pitched song sung by children about 'Belén' (Bethlehem) is perhaps the equivalent of 'Away in a Manger' for school choirs.

San Francisco church in Popayán has an enormous nativity miniature landscape in place across the width of the altar. Mary and Joseph can be seen making a fire in a cave, whilst awestruck country folk gaze upwards and the three kings (known as the 'magic kings' in Spanish) cross the bleak terrain astride their camels. On the wall above the nativity, a giant model of Jesus of the cross presides over the scene, in an ominous conflation of time. "If you think this one is big," noted a friendly church-goer as I snapped away, "you should visit the church of the Immaculate Conception. The scene there is three times this size." 

In Popayán, and in Latacunga across the border, people queue to have their photos taken inside faceless Santas, reindeer and snowmen. Recycled Christmas decorations are all the rage in both countries - we passed a Christmas tree made from recycled tyres, a snowman made from plastic cups, fairy lights inside plastic bottles.

Gaudy as they often are, there's something engaging about wandering around the lighted town squares. Families seem to make an outing of it, and they´re not all entirely blinded by the magic of Christmas. "Qué feo," muttered a ma, pa and son as they passed a stuffed, present-bearing superhero, hanging from one of the palm trees in Latacunga. Viewed from the wrong angles, the decoration did appear as though someone had been lynched.

Christmas isn´t without its frustrations for South Americans though. Enjoying the view from the somewhat cramped bench behind the driver´s seat on the way to Riobamba, I was also privy to the driver and the ticket collector's deliberations about how to best reach the bus station. "Lots of roads are closed for the children's parades," they explained, just as a troop of school kids appeared one block over. Heralded by a banner and a slow-moving jeep with loud speakers, and followed by a crowd of parents (and umbrellas, to ward off the sun´s rays), weary dancers and musicians weaved around the streets all morning. The Riobamban parades showcased traditional dances and costumes, whilst some of the children of Baños opted for elf outfits, and Middle-Eastern princesses plodded along beside a posse of Santas.


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