Today I have the honor of introducing to you Colombian Christmas, rituals, and customs. Of course I am going to introduce to you typical Colombian recipes for Christmas as well. I by no means consider this extensive and is more based on my personal experience. As a German I can say though that Colombian Christmas is happier, louder, and more carefree than German Christmas. Maybe it has to do with the fact that Germans usually meet with their nucleus family; during these short winter days you need to be at home behind closed doors. Colombians, on the other hand, are found travelling in large groups to relatives, Christmas celebrations can start at 30 people or more, you may encounter a birthday cake for Jesus and see Colombians dancing Salsa happily. Of course the food plays an important role as well. Usually you will find a large amount of people being involved in some food preparation as it requires many hours of labor. By the way, New Year’s Eve is not that different from Christmas, usually Colombians will visit one side of the family on Christmas, and the other on New Year’s. Prepare yourself for eating large amounts of food. But let’s first get started with Christmas in Colombia!
#1 Christmas season officially starts on December 7th, the day of the small candles (día de las velitas)
In the evening of December 7th, you will find windows, balconies, yards, and many other places decorated with candles, lights, and lanterns. Cities will usually organize a light show and there may be fireworks. Reason for the celebration is the immaculate conception of Jesus. The lights sympbolize the path for virgin Mary who will need to bless each house and family. People are grateful for the year that has almost passed and will ask for her blessing for the year to come. For that reason December 8th is a public holiday in Colombia. On December 7th you will typically eat small fried cheese balls or buñuelos or you may eat natilla as a dessert (a milk custard).Buñuelos are prepared in large quantities and are always eaten in December
#2 Las Novenas, the nine days before Christmas
For Colombians the entire month of December is for celebrations. If you so desire, you can basically prepare and eat the whole Christmas dinner all nine days before Christmas. From December 16th on traditional prayers are spoken, you will carol Christmas songs (villancicos) and you may wish to invite friends, colleagues, or family for a gathering with lots of food and drinks.
#3 Christmas or Nochebuena is on the 24th, but you need to be patient
I will never forget my first Colombian Christmas. I knew that there would be lots of food on the 24th, so I tried to cut back and was patiently waiting for Christmas dinner to roll around. Once it turned 10pm and we were still on snacks, I asked when the delicious and “real” food was finally going to be served. The answer was simple: almost at midnight! If you can only officially celebrate on the 25th, well the first second of it starts at midnight! So this is different to American Christmas. People will not stumble in their jammies downstairs to open gifts, oh no, you are going to meet on the 24th already, you will fill up your place with as many Colombians you can squeeze in, and you may feel like you can barely breathe. But that doesn’t matter, the more the merrier. Of course you will not go hungry during the day, snacks are served, again you will find buñuelos and natilla or cheese puffs called pandebono or you may even be involved in preparing some of the Christmas dinner with a bunch of others. When midnight finally arrives, you will be served food and then gifts are exchanged. This is usually followed by many hours of happy dancing and Salsa music.
#4 Like in Germany first there is the food and then the gifts
Since you will eat proper food close to midnight, snacks are super common to serve throughout the 24th. Said fried cheese balls (buñuelos), cheese puffs (pandebonos), tamales (this is meat, vegetables and corn puree steamed in banana leaves) or the dessert natilla, which is like a custard, are some common options. As tamales take many hours to prepare, typically on the 24th you will find a group of people preparing them while waiting for midnight. Tamales will be served for breakfast as well after a short night and a possible hangover. Christmas dinner often is a pork roast or something made with pork as Colombians usually eat more beef throughout the year and like to serve something special on Christmas. If the family gathering is large enough, you may even be served lechona, this is a full pig that is roasted for hours and filled with vegetables and rice. Ajiaco, a chicken and potato soup from the capital Bogotá (pictured above), may be served as an alternative. Side dishes include a potato salad (main ingredients potatos, peas, and mayonnaise, pictured below), boiled potatos, and rice. Family members (typcially women) are busy preparig the sides for the big meal. Whenever I asked Colombians what their most typical Christmas food is, the answer usually was buñuelos or natilla. Funnily enough in the Colombian mind the snacks served before the main course seem to entail more Christmas spirit than anything else. Dessert usually is either more natilla (the milk custard), manjar blanco (this is a super thick caramel cream made from sugar and milk) or torta negra, a heavy fruit cake similair to the German stollen prepared much in advance to develop its flavor.
#5 The gifts come from Jesus, el niño Dios
It’s not Santa who brings the gifts of Christmas, but baby boy Jesus. Colombia is a very Catholic country, it probably comes as no surprise who the star of the show is. Once I saw a birthday cake sitting on the Christmas table. When I asked whose birthday it was, I got a rather sharp answer, wasn’t it obvious, it was Jesus’s birthday, of course! I liked the idea of actually making a birthday cake for the birthday child, this was a new concept for me.
Exchanging gifts can be a daunting task if each guest has to unwrap the gift in front of everybody and needs to express his/her gratitude for the gift giver. Mind you, with at least 30 people attending, this takes quite a long time. So keep this in mind when it’s time to exchange gifts. Some people start the food a little earlier because it is only at or after midnight that gifts can be exchanged.
#6 Christmas is a very happy and jolly celebration
It probably has to do with the cold and the dark days in Germany why we celebrate behind closed doors and keep to ourselves. In Colombia, on the other hand, you will hear the muffled (or not so muffled) sounds of Salsa from many apartments, you will see many people outside and large gatherings everywhere, everybody is in a good mood and seems to be happy and jolly. Depending on whether alcohol is consumed (aguardiente, an alcohol made from anise is very popular), you may also be spontaneously invited to a celebration. And you will for sure dance Salsa (don’t ask me how many Colombians tried to teach it to me, I guess I will remain the German “robot”). Christmas in the Colombian mind is something to celebrate, loudly, happily, with lots of family and is full of joy and dancing. For me this was something new, whereas German Christmas is more contemplative, more quiet, Colombians have no problem whatsoever to be excited, it is Christmas after all!
#7 On the 25th there will be reheated leftovers (calentados), tamales or arepas
Leftovers served properly are an art Colombians have perfected. Food is not only reheated, but you may add one more ingredient such as eggs, or create something new. The 25th is a more relaxed day to stay at home and just enjoy time together. You may be served the steamed banana leaves (tamales) for breakfast, get to try the leftovers (calentados) or eat the corn flatbread arepa enjoyed with some hot chocolate. Remember, food is very important in Colombia, so if you have the chance to visit in December, be sure to at least give each dish a try, saying No straight away is considered being rude. I promise you, you won’t go hungry if staying with Colombians, so just relax and enjoy the company and a Colombian mom or auntie taking “proper” care of your needs. So all I need to say is: ¡Feliz Navidad!