Celebrating Christmas Colombian style

21:52, Dec 17 2012
NEW ZEALAND NAVIDAD: Colombian refugees Luz Stella Munoz and her son Cesar may decorate their house to the nines at Christmas, but have dropped more zany Colombian festive traditions.

Exploding dolls, cross-dressing widows, yellow underpants and all-night revelry: welcome to Christmas in Colombia.

For Wellington's Colombians, most of them refugees, New Zealand's silly season is sedate compared to festivities back home.

It's early December when I visit Colombian refugee Luz Stella Munoz, and the decorations are already up at her Titahi Bay house. A sparkling tree stands in one corner of her lounge, a nativity scene in the other, and every door and table is adorned with a garland of tinsel.

''There's a popular saying about Colombians - there's nothing more Colombian than putting the Christmas tree up halfway through November. That's the tradition,'' she says.

Nativity scenes are a big deal back home, where they are often life-size, she says.

''When I was a kid, the nativity in our home was bigger than me and my siblings.''


As Ms Munoz describes Christmas back in Colombia, her eyes sparkle, she becomes animated, her rapid-fire Spanish spills out faster.

Decorations might go up in mid-November but the Christmas season unofficially starts in Colombia on December 7, on El Dia de las Velitas or the Day of Candles. Big fireworks displays honour the Virgin Mary, kids light sparklers and candles light the way to every doorway.

''It's really a beautiful view,'' Ms Munoz says.

Ms Munoz's home city of Medellin is famous for its displays of Christmas lights, which get switched on on December 7.

Tens of millions of lights transform the city into magical landscapes like a huge lake with lilypads, a fairy forest or a tropical island.

''That's something that we miss a lot. It's not very common here - it's usually the Colombians who put their lights up at Christmas,'' Ms Munoz says.

December 16 is also an important date, it is when Colombians begin a nine-day Christmas celebration, ending with the main event on Christmas Eve.

On the night of the 24th families will go to midnight mass, then open presents and have their main Christmas meal.

The signature Colombian dishes are natilla, a coconut custard, and bunuelos, fried doughnuts, Ms Munoz says.

After dinner there is dancing and a lot of wine. Fireworks are let off even though it's illegal for anyone but the government to do so.

''The 24th is a big day for us. It's a big celebration,'' Ms Munoz says.

''People who are on holiday carry on the celebration until the 26th - it's not uncommon.''

There is no mention of Santa Claus, or Papa Noel as the Colombians call him. He does exist, but is not very important, and Colombian kids ask Baby Jesus for presents, Ms Munoz says.

After Christmas Eve the really quirky Colombian traditions kick in.

On New Year's Eve another turkey dinner is rounded off with 12 grapes per diner, which represent the months of the coming year.

''It's sort of like a superstition, a belief that if you eat the 12 grapes at midnight, that will bring prosperity and abundance for the coming year,'' Ms Munoz says.

More illegal fireworks are let off, this time sewn into cloth dolls.

''We also have dolls made of fabric with fireworks in them. They represent the old year that's ending and come midnight we burn them, saying 'goodbye' to the year.''

Many superstitions are designed to attract good fortune, Ms Munoz says.

''It's not uncommon to see people running around the block with a suitcase. If you do that the superstition says you will travel this year.''

People also shower themselves in champagne to ensure wealth and being given yellow knickers brings good luck, Ms Munoz says.

But the strangest sight of New Year night has to be men dressed as widows, weeping in the streets.

''There's a funny old tradition, but it's doesn't exist much anymore in Medellin. On the 31st at midnight some men would dress up as a widow, all in black, and they go out on the street crying because they were representing the old year that's dying. The trick was they would go knocking on every house and they got a tip or a glass of wine,'' Ms Munoz says.

Colombia's Christmas season winds up on January 6, when the biblical three wise men are supposed to have reached Baby Jesus in his manger. On December 25 Colombians add the wise men to their nativity scene, and every day the figures are moved closer to Jesus' manger to arrive on January 6.

On January 6, Colombians celebrate Paseo de Olla, and trek out to the countryside.

''We drink, we eat, and have a good time,'' Ms Munoz says.

This year Ms Munoz will be celebrating Christmas and New Year with her son Cesar and some other Colombian families in the neighbourhood, but don't expect to see any zany antics on Titahi Bay streets.

''The small traditions we don't keep here. What we do is the decoration, Christmas tree and nativity, and Christmas and New Year's Eve dinners.''

The holidays can be a tough time for refugees.

''Just as any other Colombian families here in New Zealand, we came here because of the constant insecurity in Colombia,'' Ms Munoz says.

''It's difficult. You miss your family a lot. This is a time of the year that wrinkles your heart - all the memories come back and you think 'last year I was doing this with all my family and now I'm not'. I think that happens to all Colombians, refugees, and immigrants - everybody.''

* Thanks to Gabrielle Peralta Montane from Porirua Refugee Services for translating this interview.


There are 35 Colombian refugee families in Porirua and 27 in the Hutt Valley

Colombian immigration to New Zealand was minimal until 2007, when New Zealand opened a refugee quota

Colombia is in northwest South America, bordering the Carribean Sea

At 1.5 million square kilometres, Colombia is five times the size of New Zealand, and has 46 million people

Spanish is Colombia's official language

Ongoing civil violence has killed 250,000 Colombians since 1964

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