Christmas in Colombia, South America

Published 12:00 am Thursday, December 21, 2006

For a child growing up in the ghettos of one of Colombia’s largest cities, life is very much about running wild and free.

Joe Alvarez spent his youth in Medellin and in the mild weather of the City of Everlasting Spring he would roam with friends, often looking for ways to make money. Even at the young age of 5, he would sneak into the affluent neighborhoods to siphon gasoline from the cars to resell in his neighborhood.

He laughs as he remembers a time that an older man asked him and one of his friends to find a new hubcap for his automobile. They set off and returned later with no luck, but they had a plan. Alvarez simply distracted the man as his friend sneaked round the other side of the car, removed a hubcap, quickly wiped it clean and presented it to the man.

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While his boyhood hijinks would, by many standards, be considered criminal, Alvarez and his friends had good intentions. With the money they made, they would buy groceries for needy families in their neighborhood.

That camaraderie with friends and neighbors was an integral part of life in general, but was especially important when it came to celebrating the holidays. Much of the decorating and feasting would spill into the streets, and the definition of family broadened to encompass all those nearby.

Colombia is a northern South American country, bordering the Caribbean Sea, between Panama and Venezuela, and bordering the North Pacific Ocean, between Ecuador and Panama. It is slightly less than twice the size of Texas.

Alvarez’s father, like some 90 percent of Colombians, was Catholic, but his mother was Jewish. Though his mother made a point to celebrate Hanukkah, complete with a menorah, the traditions and festivities of their countrymen often dictated how Alvarez celebrated the holidays.

In Colombia, there is no Thanksgiving Day to kick off the Christmas season. Instead, from Dec. 6-8 they have a candlelight celebration in honor of the Virgin Mary. Dec. 8 is a national holiday to recognize the Immaculate Conception of Mary,

which is a Catholic teaching that Mary was born without original sin. Countless candles are lit and used to line the sidewalks, streets and more.

“That’s the beginning of Christmas,” Alvarez said.

Religion is thickly infused in most of Colombian Christmas traditions. Christmas trees are raised and decorated on Dec. 16 with the start of the Novena, which involves a nine-day prayer ritual with a rosary in anticipation of Christmas day, according to, the Web site for the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago.

“The Christmas tree over there is not very popular,” Alvarez said. “The nativity is more important than the Christmas tree.”

This scene, which usually depicts a manger with the baby Jesus, his parents, the shepherds and kings, is ubiquitous in churches and homes. Children often participate in live re-enactments, Alvarez said, and in the weeks before Christmas children gather around the nativity to sing Christmas carols. Often they will travel from home to home, serenading nativities throughout the neighborhood, and adults will give them candy or cookies in return. It is quite similar to Halloween in America, he said.

In addition to nativities, families often festoon their homes by stringing colored paper from house to house, which helps create an awning under which they cook the Christmas Eve feast. Alvarez said neighbors pitch in to buy a pig and roast it in the street that day. As it is a day for partying, they also “consume a lot of alcohol,” Alvarez said.

Most Colombians attend Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve before returning home for dinner. The Christmas meal can include tamales, friend cheese balls, natilla, which is a flan-like dessert, a special chicken soup called Ajiaco, homemade breads and more. Men often drink aguardiente, which is similar to moonshine, Alvarez said.

After the hubbub leading up to Christmas, the day itself is a quite one spent with immediate family, leaving the previously bustling streets empty. Children still have much to look forward to, though, including gifts, not from Santa Claus, but from Baby Jesus. The presents, usually toys, are placed either on or at the foot of the bed, Alvarez said. Adults typically get clothing, though Colombians also are fond of giving appliances, he said with a laugh.

The holidays simmer down a little until New Year’s Eve, which Colombians ring in much as they do Christmas Eve n the same feasting and drinking. The Roman Catholic influences come through again on Jan. 6, the day of the Three Kings or the Feast of the Epiphany, which marks the arrival of the Magi, who followed a star to the Baby Jesus and presented him with gold, frankincense and myrrh.

It is a day for spending time with extended family or gathering outside to cook and socialize with friends and neighbors, Alvarez said.

Some families give gifts then, too.

Though most of the families were poor and there were tight times with few or any gifts, Alvarez remembers his boyhood Christmases fondly. He left his home country 20 years ago at just 19 years old. Both his parents had died, so he traveled to Europe, where he spent five years living in Sicily, Italy and Portugal. While in Portugal, he saw a sign at a travel agency advertising New York City. Coming from a developing country, Alvarez had big ideas about America.

“I’m going to go there,” he said to himself.

And he did.

Alvarez lived in the City that Never Sleeps for six months, and found work with an Italian man who had family in Virginia and suggested they head south. Now, and for the past 18 years, Alvarez has owned his own business, Joe’s Tile.

These days, Alvarez has left behind the holiday practices of his youth. He has adopted some of his wife, Susan Blair’s, traditions, and the pair have created new ones together. Their special time is shortly before Christmas, when he and Susan travel to New York City for a shopping spree. One of their favorite stops: China Town, for haggling over fabulous knock-offs of designer goods.

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of profiles on people who live or work in Suffolk, but are originally from other countries. They shared with us how they celebrate the holidays back home. Friday: Ghana