An ex-pats experience of a Colombian New Year’s celebration
After travelling and living 3 years in Colombia, I learned what Colombians love the most — celebrating life.
New Year’s Eve is celebrated very differently than in Western countries. In Europe we usually celebrate this day with our friends, partying and drinking until the sun comes up. “Silvester” how we call it in my home country Germany, is really just an excuse to get drunk with your friends.
But this year was different, this year I celebrated “el año nuevo” (the new year) with my Colombian family. Just as Christmas, this day is dedicated to your family. Colombian families are huge, so they make for a pretty decent crowd.
Escape from the Big City
Traditionally families escape from the big city life and go to their “fincas” (holiday houses) in nature. We went to a very beautiful Finca this year, about two hours from the capital Bogota. The Finca was full of banana trees (“platano” in Spanish), orange and lemon trees. Every morning, after taking a bath in the cold river, I went out to harvest lemons to make fresh lemonade for breakfast.
When we arrived, the fire in the oven was already heating the huge pot of steaming soup. “Ajiaco” is made of different kinds of potatoes, corn and served with avocado, rice and chicken. Traditionally, Colombians like to eat a lot of meat (just like in Germany), but on New Year’s Eve, they like to roast a big turkey.
Families share the festive food very late at night, typically around midnight. Eating all together is very important and food is celebrated almost as much as any holiday.
After the food, they love to enjoy an ice-cold “cerveza” (beer) and of course, to dance. And Colombians love to dance their traditional dances with a partner — I got asked to dance by literally every male person in the room. And all of them were very surprised to see a European girl that can dance.
New Year’s Traditions
one of the many new year’s traditions is the “año viejo”, a little doll that represents the old year and exists only for one reason: to be burned. you can write down all the bad things, situations and problems of the old year and put them into the little bag. then, just before midnight, you will burn the doll — and with it everything you want to leave behind.
One of my favourite traditions happens at midnight. Everyone eats exactly 12 grapes, and with every grape, you eat you can make a wish for the new year.
If you want to travel a lot in the new year, you should take an empty suitcase and run around your neighbourhood. Sounds crazy, but I actually saw a lot of people running around with suitcases.
When you visit any store in December, you will see yellow underwear on display (even in the normal supermarket). Yellow is considered the colour of good luck and abundance, that’s why Colombians like to start the new year with brightly coloured under panties.
Lentils and all kinds of grains are considered to bring a lot of abundance to your life, that is why you put a hand full of lentils into your pockets (and we even ate some just before midnight).
Grains of Abundance
Besides lentils, Colombians decorate their whole house with grains — you can buy nicely arranged wheat sticks in every colour and put them into a vase, just like a bucket of flowers. My Colombian mom usually sticks them into a loaf of bread which she decorates with sweets, fruits and more grains.
The First Day of the New Year
If you think that with New Year’s Eve the celebrations are over, you are wrong. Colombians start the first morning of the new year with Tamales, the probably most traditional breakfast ever. Tamales are a mass of corn dough with all kinds of different meats, wrapped into a banana leaf, traditionally served with bread and hot chocolate.
Colombian families love to play games. We played “rana” (meaning frog in Spanish), a traditional game where you try to throw little metal rings into a box. You usually play for some money — let’s say I lost my first game of rana.
Then we continued the day with some live music. First, a traditional band singing Mariachis — a very popular style of music in both Colombia and Mexico. They sing to life, death and love and are dressed in beautiful gowns. To continue the celebrations, another musical duo was invited to make the people dance with a mixture of salsa, bachata, merengue, rancheras and many more — until we arrived at the “hora loca” (the crazy hour) where the finca turned into a disco dance floor and everyone started to dance choreographies like “La Macarena”.
I think what I as a European can take away from the Colombian way of celebrating is to simply enjoy every moment more. To dance. To honour our traditions, and to appreciate celebrating life with our family.
If you want to see how Colombians celebrate, I documented this year’s “fiesta” for you: