Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Christmas in Columbia

Brian Mendonça

At Christmas, the boys asked again for a rowboat.

‘Okay’, said their papa, ‘we’ll buy it when we get back to Cartagena.’

Toto, who was nine years old, and Joel, who was seven, were more determined than their parents believed.

‘No’ they said, ‘We need it here and now.’

 So begins ‘Light is Like Water,’ a short story by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, perhaps one of the greatest living writers today. As he sinks into dementia in a city in Mexico far away from his beloved Columbia where he was born in 1927, he must be experiencing his second childhood.

Columbia was better known until 2 December 1993 for the Medellin drug empire of Pablo Escobar, but it is also known for some of Latin America’s  --and the world’s – greatest literature. Marquez’s memoirs, viz. Vivir Para Contaria /Living to Tell the Tale (2002); fiction, Memories of My Melancholy Whores (2004) and I Didn’t Come Here to Make a Speech (2010) – a collection of his speeches -- speak eloquently for his range, versatility and endurance.

Being staunchly Catholic, Columbia is very much like Goa in its Christmas traditions. According to a source Christmas in Columbia starts on the feast day of the Immaculate Conception, i.e. December 8 called El Dia de Las Velitas or ‘Day of the Candles.’ Skinny candles are lit at dusk in front of homes and churches. There is music, dance and food aplenty. For drink there is a swig of rum and Aguardiente – a potent brew made of anise. From the 16th of December till the 24th of December family members gather to pray the traditional  La Novena de Aguinaldos or the Christmas novena for nine consecutive days. The novena goes from one home to another and Spanish carols called villancicos are sung.

Meanwhile the kids are busy writing out their Carta al Niño Dios i.e. the Letter to Baby Jesus. This letter is placed in the crib so Baby Jesus can know what to place near their bed on 24th December night. The kids are also encouraged to wrap gifts which are then given by them to poor children at street corners.

Patricia Montaño from Bogota, the capital of Columbia, informs us that La Noche Buena or Christmas eve night is when all the family get together to eat, dance and make merry.  Many go for the Misa del Gallo or ‘Rooster Mass’ which begins at midnight. Those who stay at home sing villancicos near the crib and wait until midnight to wish each other, exchange gifts and have a gala dinner.

In aid of a charity in the winter of 2006 all the embassies of Latin America in New Delhi cooked traditional dishes of their countries to make up a grand buffet which was served on the lawns of the Embassy of Spain – Spanish being the lingua franca. I still have Viva La Música  --the gift of a CD of Latin American music of each of the participating nations. Merry Christmas!
Published in Gomantak Times Weekender on 22 December 2013. Pix courtesy 'Macondo Route' for Garcia Marquez Fans Launched in Columbia,' by Sandra Parra in caribbeannewsdigital(dot)com

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