Christmas season in a religious, tropical country

My host family put up the Christmas decoration on the first of November, just about when one could start noticing a change in weather and the start of the warm season had arrived. So, I came home sweating because it was 24 degrees Celsius outside to be welcomed by a “Feliz Navidad” sign. My Christmas experience this year was very different from what I am used to. I feel like I am in the middle of summer. I guess it just can’t be Christmas without cold, my family and all the traditions and events I know. My Christmas this year is more about observing how Ecuador celebrates than it really being Christmas. So, I thought I’d share some of the traditions or celebrations taking place next to palm trees.

Papá Noel

One way of getting into the Christmas mood was introduced to me by my apprenticeship. At 16:30 for nine days they had something called “novenas” (nueve means nine in Spanish). The whole municipio gathered to listen to some religious person talk about a different topic every day, sing and pray together. Afterwards everyone shared traditional food, like rosero, empanadas, quesadillas, etc. Novenas happen in various different contexts, but seem to be a thing for the first two weeks of December. 

Another tradition I got to know through my work, but also just by happening to be in the right place at the right time is “Pase del niño”. Basically there is a procession through town with someone dressed up as virgen Maria, if I am not mistaken, and carrying a baby Jesus figure. Behind people follow carrying flowers, religious depictions and other celebratory things. When I tried to figure out the origin I found a couple of confusing stories, but the most common one said that “pase del niño” has its origin in a statue of the Christ child arriving in Ecuador all the way from Rome, blessed by the pope. On the 24th of December there was a huge “pase del niño” in Gualaceo. In total there were over 70 cars in a long procession with different dancers and a marching band. The cars were decorated to showcase an important bible scene and on top of them were people dressed up as the most important biblical figures. It was a beautiful experience.

„pase del niño“ at a fiesta for old people

A celebration which seemingly occurs in every city is turning on the Christmas lights. In Gualaceo, they had a procession of decorated Christmas wagons, similar to carnival, a speech by the mayor and fireworks on a Saturday evening to celebrate turning on the Christmas lights. In Gualaceo, the Christmas lights are not so much of importance compared to other cities. Paute, for example, declared itself the city of lights and the lights there are insane. I heard people say that the city spend 30 million USD on the lights. I would argue that this emphasis on Christmas lights it at least debatable. Gualaceo has a new mayor this year who decided to spend less money on the lights and invest more in roads and safety which to be honest sounds more reasonable in my opinion. 

The next habit it not necessarily a tradition or celebration, but during the month of December there seems to be a heightened focus on old and disabled people. For example, the unidad social of Gualaceo organized little fiestas for those people in the villages surrounding Gualaceo and the city itself. I know that other cities as well have been organizing similar things to bring joy to the more vulnerable. 

playing a game at a fiesta for old people

To be honest, with all these festivities and preparations for Christmas over the past two months I expected a lot of the actual Christmas celebration. However, it turned out to be very different from what I imagined. After the “pase del niño” on the 24th we went back to the house for a tee and some “pan”. At about 6pm I went to rest for a little in my room and at around half past seven we went to the house of some family friends to meet two other families. We quickly exchanged presents right before we left, they gave me socks and chocolate and I gave them the game “twister”. The evening started with a couple of rounds of shots before eating the Christmas dinner at around 10pm. The dinner consisted of Turkey, baked potatoes with cheese, rice and a pasta salad with mango. Ecuadorians love carbs… After that more shots and at some point we went outside to their terrace for more shots and to dance to reggaeton until 3 am. All the adults were pretty drunk by then. I am used to Christmas Eve being very relaxed and chill and it definitely never reminded me of a party until now. It was not at all what I expected from such a catholic country. On the 25th my family did not really do anything interesting, we just relaxed in the house for most of the day. All in all a very interesting experience…

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