Christmas in Colombia: Discover 6 Beloved Holiday Traditions

Christmas in Colombia: Discover 6 Beloved Holiday Traditions

December 21, 2023 7 min read

Christmas in Colombia: Discover Six Beloved Traditions

Celebrated across the globe by more than two billion people, Christmas is a special time of year that brings many families together. Some of the core features of Christmas celebrations hold true in communities around the world, but other aspects of the way that the holiday is observed vary greatly between cultures. In Colombia, Christmas is not just one special day; it’s a month-long celebration filled with vibrant customs and joyous moments.

With Christmas fast approaching and the festive period already well underway in the vast South American country, let’s explore some of the key features and facts of a Colombian Christmas.

Let There Be Light: Little Candles Day, Nativity Decoration & The Alboradas

Little Candles Day & The Alboradas

To build up excitement for the upcoming holidays, many towns and cities host the Alboradas huge firework displays that light up skies. The Alboradas is a relatively new tradition, having begun as recently as 2003 when residents of Medellín, the nation’s second largest city after the capitol, decided to mark the return of peace to the city with a colorful and impressive array of fireworks. From there, the midnight fireworks displays spread to other cities and regions of Colombia. If you visit a city hosting the Alboradas, you will likely hear the thunder of firecrackers begin around 11 p.m. with the celebrations continuing well into the night.

Despite the local enthusiasm for the Alboradas, the official start of the festive season is Día de las Velitas (Little Candles Day). As day turns to night on December 7, households across Colombia light small candles and paper lanterns to guide the Virgin Mary as she comes to bless their homes. First observed in 1854, the celebration marks the moment Pope Pius declared the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary.

The celebration of Dia de las Velitas also varies quite a bit between regions. For instance, communities on the Caribbean coast observe this tradition before dawn on the morning of December 8, lighting candles and placing them inside luminarias or farolitos – plastic and paper coverings that protect the candles from the wind. In the capital city Bogotá, locals place candles on windowsills and balconies and several streets are closed to traffic, providing residents and tourists with a better view of all the impressive illuminations.

Colombia’s Cities Light Up with Festive Displays

Each Colombian city takes tremendous pride in its Christmas decorations. Typically, important city-center plazas are lit up with decorations, illuminating historic architecture. Other decorations serve as symbols of the region’s heritage. Cartagena, for example, often boasts elaborate figures of sailing ships from yesteryear due to its close ties to the Caribbean Sea.

However, none are more famous than the displays in Medellín. Here, the Christmas lights have become a popular tourist attraction, drawing in international tourists and large crowds from across Colombia. The luminous spectacle features displays in more than 100 of the city’s parks following a path along the Medellín River, which snakes through the center of the city. The decorations themselves are carefully chosen to fit an overall theme. In 2013, the city’s administration decided to highlight the history and traditions of the Antioquia region to which Medellín belongs, including the evolution of the city’s famous Metropolitan Cathedral.

Those travelling to Colombia during the festive period will also notice the Pesebres (mangers). Alongside Christmas lights, Colombian towns and cities exhibit elaborate nativity scenes that depict the birth of Jesus Christ. Families meticulously set up these Pesebres often incorporating local elements such as flora and fauna that are native to Colombia. The scale of these Pesebres can be utterly staggering, while some are miniature, others can take up entire streets, highlighting the dedication and creativity of their makers.

The Novena de Aguinaldo

Praying the Novena

The Novena de Aguinaldo is a nine-day series of prayers and carols which begins on December 16 and finishes on Noche Buena (Christmas Eve). During these nine days, families and communities gather to recite prayers, sing traditional songs known as villancicos, and share some tasty treats. Like the story of the Virgin Mary and St. Joseph taking shelter in different houses prior to Jesus’s birth, a different family or neighbor hosts the Novena each night, fostering a strong sense of friendship and togetherness.

Juegos de Aguinaldo

During the Novena, there’s also plenty of room for competition. The Juegos de Aguinaldo are small games that family members of all ages can take part in. One of the most common is called Estatua (statue). The aim of this game is to surprise another person by shouting “Estatua!”. Once the command has been given, the opponent must maintain the position they are standing or sitting in until the other person gives them permission to resume moving freely. Players often try to catch each other in unusual or accidental positions that will be difficult to maintain.

Another popular game is tres pies (three feet). In this game, players must try to keep their legs together for the entire evening. Failure to do so will give an opponent the opportunity to stick a foot between the player’s legs and shout “¡Tres pies, mis aguinaldos!”, for which they gain one point. On Christmas Eve, all the points are totaled and small prizes are awarded to the winner.

Niño Jesus, Santa Claus, and Presents

Unlike children in many other Western countries, for whom Christmas Eve conjures the image of an old man with a white beard struggling to come down a chimney with a sack of presents, it isn’t Santa Claus who brings gifts to children in Colombia. Instead, presents are given by Niño Jesus (Baby Jesus). For that reason, families rarely leave treats for Santa Claus and instead exchange presents after the Aguinaldo Mass during the night of December 24.

Colombian Christmas Cuisine: Buñuelos, Natillas, and more

The Christmas Eve Meal

While families typically gather and eat together throughout the festive period, the most important meal by far takes place during Noche Buena (Christmas Eve) and is frequently eaten before midnight mass. As with Christmas decorations, each region has its own variation of the Christmas feast, but certain dishes are particularly popular:

Lechona. This hearty pork dish, filled with peas and rice, dates back more than five centuries. It is typically served with pork skin on top.

Ajiaco Bogotano. Favored in the wider Bogotá region, ajiaco is a flavorful soup full of staple foods like chicken, potato, and corn.

Arepas. Though more commonly associated with neighboring Venezuela, arepas often accompany the festive pork dishes. Filled with meat or vegetables, arepas are savory snacks made using a fried cornmeal base.

Christmas Delicacies

Though the Christmas Eve meal receives the most attention, Colombia’s most prized Christmas dish may actually be a dessert. Natilla is a creamy custard pudding that contains a special ingredient – panela, a sweet sugar cane sucrose, which gives natilla a caramel color and unique flavor. Some Colombians even add cheese, giving the natilla an extra richness.

Another Christmas delight is the buñuelo, a fried dough ball made from corn flour and mature queso fresco. Given that these dough balls are fried, buñuelos are often enjoyed as street food sold by vendors making them to order in small stands.

Día de los Santos Inocentes

Across the globe, many report feeling somewhat brought down once the fun of the Christmas holidays have passed, knowing that they will have to wait an entire year to repeat the festivities, but this isn’t the case in Colombia. On December 28, Colombians celebrate Día de los Santos Inocentes, a special date on the calendar where residents play practical jokes on one another and, in general, try to amuse themselves with jovial pranks, not unlike April Fool’s Day celebrated in the other places.

If you walk around Colombian cities on December 28, you will probably see at least a few people with some message or smiley face stuck to their back. Other pranks involve changing the time on a friend’s watch or attempting to scare someone by placing a prop like a mannequin in an unexpected place.

Día de los Reyes (Three Kings Day)

The festive period draws to a close with the arrival of Melchor, Gaspar and Baltasar, the three reyes magos who Christians believe presented Jesus with gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Many cities throughout the country host colorful parades that bring whole communities out onto the streets. In Bogotá, thousands of people gather in the Barrio Egipto to enjoy concerts, theatrical performances, competitions, and typical food from the region around the capital. Further north in Baranoa, hundreds of actors perform the nativity story for live audiences, reviving the importance of the Reyes Magos and passing the story on to future generations.

Send Money to Colombia this Christmas

With over 90% of the population identifying themselves as Christians, Christmas is a very important to Colombians. That includes the approximately five million living abroad, many of whom send seasonal greetings, gifts and remittances home during the festive period. In an effort to connect more international migrants with their families this Christmas, we have partnered with the national postal service in Colombia, 4-72, enabling us to provide an increasingly convenient money transfer service that reaches all corners of the county.

Ready to send money to Colombia? We’re here for you. Download our app for iOS or Android to get started.

For more info: comms@riamoneytransfer.com

About the author

Matthew Breakell

Originally from the United Kingdom, Matthew Breakell is an experienced content creator specializing in the importance and impact of international remittance flows.

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