Monday, December 24, 2007

Colombia: Christmas in Bogotá, 1987

I've spent two Christmases in Colombia: one in 1980, and the other in 1987. In 1987 my wife and I were living in Bogotá, on winter break from our respective teaching jobs there, and because of the schedule the break lasted a month. During that time we often walked to one of Bogotá's principal shopping districts, called Chapinero. Outside one of the churches of the area, called Nuestra Señora de Lourdes, I took this picture of the church's large manger scene. People do have Christmas trees in their houses at Christmas, but in Colombia the manger scene (called pesebre in Spanish) receives the most lavish attention. The size of some of these reminds me of model train layouts, and often there are competitions to see who can create the most elaborate manger scene.

Christmas in Colombia and in other parts of Latin America has more of the feel of the Fourth of July or New Year's Eve than of quiet evenings beside a fireplace. The focus is more on December 24th than on the 25th, and the gifts are traditionally given at midnight after a long party on Christmas Eve, with plenty of music and dancing. The kids believe that el Niño Dios or the Christ Child brings them their gifts, though Papá Noel or Santa Claus is also well known.

In some houses a Nativity novena is recited starting on December 16, and the evening of the 24th is the last night of the novena, which celebrates the arrival of Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem and the birth of Christ. The novena is also accompanied by traditional Spanish Christmas carols or villancicos. Some of the foods typically served during Christmas are natilla, a dessert with a consistency like a thick pudding and usually flavored with cinnamon sticks; buñuelos or large round cheese fritters; and sabajón, a vanilla-flavored liqueur. Also popular are what Colombians call tamales, not to be confused with Mexican tamales. The Colombian tamales are made of corn meal with bits of chicken, pork and/or beef with carrots and yellow peas, wrapped up in a banana or plantain leaf. Also, in Colombia the singular of tamales is "tamal" not "tamale."

There are also plenty of fireworks the whole night, as well as pleas from the city for the public to exercise care to avoid injuries. I recall that when we drove someone home from our Christmas party, we would invariably see someone dart in front of our car to set off some fireworks in the street. Over the years more controls have been put in place to try to reduce the number of accidents with fireworks.

See my webpage on Colombia at

Other websites:

Caribbean Folk Arts Network (Caribfolk) - Caribbean cultural network:

Raices Culturales Latinoamericanas (Latin American Cultural Roots) - a nonprofit organization I founded in 1991 that presents Latin American cultural shows, exhibits, and workshops:

Raicesnews - Latin cultural events in the Philadelphia area:


Cynthia said...

My new stepmom is from Bogota and now lives here in the south with us. She was explaining her traditions to me and I found them to be quite interesting and beautiful! Thanks for posting this so that I can learn more!

Michael Esposito said...

You're most welcome, Cynthia. I hope you have a great Christmas and New Year's!