Lighting Candles for El Día de las Velitas

The Best Place in the World for Christmas?

All of the guidebooks are right.  Medellín, Colombia is hands-down one of the best places in the world to celebrate Christmas.  Christmas in another country can spark a bit of homesickness.  Not here.  One Colombian newspaper writes, “‘Tis the season to be homesick…that is, if Medellín has ever been your home.”  I can boldly say it is impossible to get homesick in Medellín during the month of December.  The festivities and excitement for Christmas are contagious.. and they started with a slew of fireworks and fiestas on the last night of November.  With approximately 90% of the Colombian population proclaimed and enthusiastic Catholics, Christmas is a religious event peppered with plenty of fiestas.  I’ve done a bit of research (aka asking my friends) about Christmas traditions and have been able to take part in a few already.

The “kick-off” of Christmas in Medellín begins once the alumbrados are lit.  The alubmbrados are a light display that words can’t describe. Covering all of Medellín (including the hills surrounding the city) are 3D light sculptures and displays.  To enjoy the alumbrados, you must devote a couple of evenings to drinking beer or Aguardiente (a staple for a Colombian Christmas) and snacking on gelatina, obleas, or crispetas, walking, and taking photos. With about 15 million lights, Medellín comes alive until early January with flocks of families and visitors viewing the displays in awe.

Los Alumbrados in Medellín, Colombia

A few days after the lighting, December 7 and 8 are taken off from work and school to celebrate the most important holidays: Día de las Velitas and Inmaculada Concepción. Día de las Velitas is a night of drinking, eating, dancing, and candles. Candles are lit throughout the streets of Colombia (illuminating entire cities) on the eve of the immaculate conception of The Virgin Mary. I was invited by my roommate to a Día de las Velitas party in the barrio Campo Valdes. Families’ doors left ajar with everyone in the streets, with open fires cooking morcilla (blood sausage), drinking, and dancing. I was welcomed with open arms even though I wasn’t a huge morcilla fan (I don’t think blood sausage is the best idea for a recovering vegetarian) and my Spanish is still terrible. The following day (December 8) is the day of Inmaculada Concepción, where many Colombians attend mass to celebrate the Virgin Mary, say prayers, and (likely) wake up with a hangover.

Lighting Candles for El Día de las Velitas

Starting next week on the 16th, families will gather each night for prayers of the Novena.  From the 16th to the 24th, prayers are said and songs are sung in a (usually rotating) home.  Of course, food and drinks are prevalent.  Christmas Eve is another huge fiesta with natilla (a Christmas dessert found in all homes) and buñuelos (deep fried cheese-y balls) until midnight.  Presents are brought by “El Niño Jesus” to the foot of children’s beds or under their pillows for the next morning.  Some parties continue until dawn, so most families spend a relaxing Christmas day.

For me, this Christmas will be spent in Colombia’s most famous city on the coast, Cartagena.  I have to admit I will miss my mom and my sister a little bit on Christmas morning when we typically lounge at home with a big breakfast and presents (and the annual visit from my best friend, Rachel, for more gifts) but it truly is impossible to be homesick here.  Our apartment is ready with Christmas tree and el pesebre (nativity) underneath, a pantry full of Christmas goodies, and plenty of upcoming invitations with families and a lot to look forward to in the most beautiful city to enjoy Christmas.

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