Latin Culture: Ecuadorian Holidays
The countries of Latin America share many traditions, from Carnaval to Navidad. Their celebrations are shaped by many elements, including Roman Catholicism, their Spanish heritage, indigenous traditions, and modern influences. As you read the following descriptions of four important Ecuadorian holidays, ask yourself … what traditions seem familiar to you? What traditions seem strange? Do you think your traditions would seem strange to an Ecuadorian?
1. La Navidad (Christmas) – December 25
Throughout Latin America, the Catholic religion predominates. One of the most important dates on the Catholic calendar is the celebration of the birth of Christ.
In Ecuador, Christmas used to be a primarily religious holiday. Families in each village united for the midnight mass. In front of the church, in the dark night, a bonfire of eucalyptus branches burned while families passed in a processional, carrying ceramic figurines of the Christ child and singing carols. As they entered the church, they laid the figurines in the enormous Nativity scene set up in the front of the church. Many of these figurines were quite ancient and had been handed down through generations. The next morning, at eleven o’clock Christmas Day, more families would bring their figurines of the Christ child to celebrate the Nativity at the morning mass.
However, today Christmas is no longer just a religious holiday. In Quito, the malls hang up huge Christmas decorations and have seasonal programs throughout December for children, including visits by Santa Claus. The Ecuadorian Christmas has become just like everywhere else: a time to buy.
The modern influences on Christmas can be best seen in the larger towns and cities. Some institutes and offices have a present exchange, in which everyone draws for a “secret friend.” In the larger companies, employees can expect a Christmas bonus, which might range from a bag of toys and candy for their children to an extra month’s salary. The municipal government, large landowners, and charitable organizations often have programs for poor rural schools in the week before Christmas, in which they donate a bag of candy and perhaps a small toy to each child. In high schools and universities, students collect old clothing to donate to the orphanages.
Beggars come out in force in the weeks before Christmas. The more opportunist country folk come down from the mountains to beg for Christmas alms on the streets of Quito. Children from all classes tug on the sleeves of people who look like they have money, asking for “uncaramelo para Navidad,” a candy for Christmas. Sometimes, groups of beggars swarm cars stopped at red lights, pounding on the windows and peering through at the rich folk inside.
In the villages, most of the peasant farmers still celebrate Christmas simply by going to mass. They don’t exchange presents, have a tree, or make a special meal. In more urban areas, however, Christmas means decorating and gifts. Many families adorn their homes with seasonal mugs, table mats, or cards on the mantle. In the front room, a Nativity scene stands at the place of honor.
In every house, the Nativity scene is an elaborate affair. The stable, which might be made from a cardboard box, is always covered in real moss. The same gray moss cascades for up to several feet around to create a landscape. Inside, the Baby Jesus, Mary, and Joseph hold court. Outside, a variety of animals watch the scene. Hordes of plastic sheep, cows, and even ducks, knee-deep in moss, share in Christ’s birth.
The Nativity scene occupies the place of honor in the front room, but alongside it a wealthier family might put a Christmas tree. The Christmas tree isn’t a native Andean tradition. Because of the high cost of real trees, most people have artificial trees, which they decorate with bright plastic beads, plastic stars, lights and pieces of cotton. The special Christmas Eve dinner is a fairly new tradition as well, much younger than the exchange of gifts. Only recently have families begun serving turkey for Christmas Eve. Before, families would have the less expensive chicken, or perhaps a bit of beef, along with their boiled potatoes, rice, and salad. Normally, there is no dessert, since so many families have candies left over from their children’s Christmas bags. Rather, a plate of fried bread rounds, which one can dip in brown sugar sauce, might be passed around, along with tragos, or liquor.
Dinner is eaten much later than we are accustomed to. Some families have a Christmas Eve dinner at midnight, after mass, then open presents afterwards. Other families have dinner at 11pm and open presents when the clock strikes midnight. Few people receive more than one present at Christmas, and most presents are small: knick-knacks, candles, a shirt.
After dinner and presents, Ecuadorians celebrate as they do with every fiesta: drinking and dancing. Out comes the beer, whiskey or rum, and the chairs are pushed back to the sides of the room to make space to dance. Because Christmas is such a special occasion, the head of the family will break out the more expensive drinks: quality whiskey with sparkling water, fruit-flavored sparkling wines. After dancing until the wee hours, everyone sleeps late on Christmas Day. Some go to morning mass at 11. In the afternoon, another member of the family might host a smaller party, with a simple meal followed by beer and more dancing.
2. El Año Viejo (New Year) – December 31
The celebration of the New Year is one of the most fabulous events of the year. From the burning of the “Old Year” to the traffic blocks, it’s not an experience to be soon forgotten.
As with most important holidays, everything closes early the day before, on New Year’s Eve, so that people can begin celebrating. In the streets of each town, families pull out sheets of plywood, eucalyptus branches, and dummies made from old clothes and sawdust, to begin constructing their Año Viejo.
The Año Viejo, or Old Year, represents all that was bad in the previous year. The Año Viejo is a dummy with a plastic mask on its face that represents some famous politician or public figure. To construct an Año Viejo, you have to construct a shelter first, most often made from plywood and covered with eucalyptus branches. The side of the shelter facing the street is open. Inside, the dummy or dummies repose in a scene that represents their evil-doings. Pinned on the walls of the shelter are messages scrawled on pieces of paper that explain who the dummy is and the injustice or irony of its actions. Because of all the work involved in making an Old Year, not many families do them, but those that do are highly appreciated. All during the late afternoon and evening of the 31 st, people will pass by and admire the craftsmanship of the Año Viejo, as well as nod their heads at the message.
In Quito, the Años Viejos are something special. They line the Amazonas, one of the city’s principal streets. Political parties, foundations, or companies construct them, dedicating significant time and money. Many are constructed on tall platforms, with larger-than-life effigies fashioned cleverly in an intricate scene. Popular figures spoofed yearly include Uncle Sam, the Ecuadorian president, and the head of the International Monetary Fund. The second year I went, 2001, Osama bin Laden was in almost every scene. There were many representations of the World Trade Towers and American bombs over Afghanistan. In one hilarious scene, a moving effigy of Uncle Sam slapped the bare bottom of Osama bin Laden.
My favorite Año Viejo had two ten-feet-high effigies of Uncle Sam and then-president Gustav Naboa side by side, dancing to the pirulin pin pon. A man on the ground behind them pulled their long wire cables to make them move. In front of the crowd, a deejay with a microphone “asked” President Naboa questions. “Don’t you care about the Ecuadorian people?” Head shake—no. “Don’t you care about the poor people and students?” Head shake—no. “What is it you do care about then?” Immediately, music blasted out of the loudspeakers, and both dummies began to dance. As the crowd chuckled, activists passed out political pamphlets.
Each year, you can see the concerns of the country—or at least the concerns of its political parties and activist groups—in the scenes represented by the Old Years. For example, in 2001 most of the scenes were about Osama bin Laden and the destruction of the World Trade Towers, the projected privatization of the Ecuadorian electrical and petroleum companies, the rise in gasoline prices and its affect on the Ecuadorian people, and the fútbol team’s travails as it classified for the World Cup in Korea-Japan. In the towns and villages, concerns are more local. One scene showed a cosmetic company taking over the world; another spoofed a building guard who always left his post to chase women.
Weeks before New Year’s, you can see street-side stands sprout all over the towns and city, selling plastic masks, dummies of all shapes and sizes, and fireworks to prepare for celebrating the Old Year. I remember my first experience of these New Year preparations. I arrived in the city and was horrified at what I thought was a row of bodies on the sidewalk. When I realized that they were dummies, I thought it had been a cruel joke.
By evening on the 31 st of December, most of the preparations are done, and people take to the streets to check out the scene. That’s when the “widows” come out. These are the widows of the Old Year, mourning over the death of their husband. They’re are actually young men dressed as women. They borrow their sisters’ tight skirts, blouses, and nylons, put on too much makeup, and pose in the middle of the streets, blocking traffic. Some have bigger breasts than any human being should. To pass the widow, the driver of the car must give “her” a coin or a drink of trago. It’s a great way for young men to earn money and have a little fun, but anyone who wants to drive the night of the 31 st must have a big handful of centavos to pass all the roadblocks.
The children also get into the fun. They borrow long, thick ropes from their parents, which they string across the busiest streets. When a car approaches, they pull the rope tight. The car has to give them a coin for the New Year before they’ll let down the rope and allow the car to pass.
As the evening approaches midnight, everyone gathers around their Old Year and turns on the closest radio, awaiting the announcement. They pull the Año Viejo into the middle of the street: plywood, dummy, and all. A bucket of gasoline is ready to start it burning.
3. El Día de los Difuntos (The Day of Ancestors)– November 2
The Ecuadorian Day of the Ancestors isn’t quite like the Mexican Day of the Dead, nor is it like American Halloween. El día de los difuntos is a time to celebrate one’s dead ancestors. In the small country villages, families dress in their finest clothes and carry a meal to the cemetery, where they dine on top of the grave of their ancestors. One plate is always left for the dead ancestor. This traditional meal includes guaguas de pan and the colada morada.
Guaguas de pan are bread babies. (The word guagua, pronounced wa-wa, is Quechuan.) Some families make their own guaguas de pan at home, but most buy them from the panaderías, or bakeries, which only make them during this time of the year. These bread babies can be up to 12 inches long and are shaped with a ball of dough for the head and a long, tapering ball of dough for the body. They are decorated with icing and may have jam or some other sweet inside.
The colada morada (translated as the purple colada, or oatmeal drink) is a drink made from cooking blackberries, blueberries, cinnamon, cloves, and other fruits and spices with a little oatmeal in the water until thick. The drink is then blended until smooth. From the middle of October until the second of November, cafés and restaurants try to outdo each other in offering the best guaguas de pan and coladas moradas.
In the larger towns and cities, families no longer eat with their ancestors. They spend the day visiting the cemetery and laying flowers on the graves. They may make guaguas de pan and colada morada, but only for eating with their family at home. Nevertheless, the spirit of the día de los difuntos carries on as one of the important traditions of Ecuador.
4. Seis de diciembre (The foundation of Quito) – December 6
December 6 marks the foundation of Quito. It celebrates the date in the 1500s when the Spanish arrived at the base of the Pichincha volcanoes and decided to found the “ Kingdom of Quito” there. This is a holiday specific to Quito, since the two other major Ecuadorian cities, Guayaquil and Cuenca, have their own special founding holidays.
Even though August 10 is Independence Day both for the city and for Ecuador (when the native-born people took to the streets of Quito to call for independence from Spain), December 6 is the more important day of celebration. It celebrates the city and its long history. Celebrations start nearly two weeks early with eight days of internationally acclaimed bullfighting in the Plaza de Toros. The municipal government distributes flags and plastic banners with the slogan, “¡Viva Quito!” to each neighborhood. These banners criss-cross balconies and drape perilously low over the streets until they brush the tops of buses. Everywhere, the red-and-blue flag of Quito with the city’s crest in the center flies beside the national flag of Ecuador.
For the week before the 6th, the principle avenues of the city are full of chivas, or open-sided trucks with wooden benches for passengers. During the weekdays, school groups, companies, and offices hire the chivas to take their group around the city in a patriotic display of spirit. A band on top of the truck plays while passengers hang off the sides of the chiva, waving flags and shouting. At night, especially the night before the 6th, dozens of chivas full of young people party up and down the streets.
Each year, the municipal government pays for a temporary sound stage to be constructed in every barrio, or neighborhood, of the city, and pays for a band on the weekend before the 6 th. Saturday night is a fiesta everywhere in the city. Neighbors dance together in the streets of their barrio, shouting, “¡Viva Quito!”
The day of December 6 itself is actually very quiet. No one is on the streets, and few places are open. Why? Because most people are hung-over or, quite simply, worn out. The big day is the day before, the 5th, when most offices and shops close at 1 o’clock in the afternoon so that people can get home and start la fiesta early. Some companies and offices even have their own parties that day, hiring bands to come to their office and dancing until mid-day. At noon, there is a parade down one of the main avenues. Participants wear one of the various traditional costumes of the country’s myriad indigenous groups and carry baskets of flower petals.
As the sun goes down on the evening of the 5th, the streets become crowded with local musical groups and dancers performing for coins. Young people stand in groups with their leather jackets hugging turtleneck sweaters, their breath white frost. Chivas roar up and down the main avenues while people pour in and out of restaurants, bars, and discotheques. Quiteñans celebrate their city in the way they know best: dancing and drinking until dawn.
Those who have special wishes for the New Year are prepared. Some people place their list of wishes in an apple and keep it until the end of the year, when they toss it into the rubble of the Año Viejo to burn. Others keep twelve grapes in their pocket, and just as the announcer starts counting down 60 seconds until the New Year, the person must eat the grapes as fast as possible, saying a wish for each grape, and finish the grapes exactly as the clock reaches 12 am. Others who wish to travel in the following year must run around the block twelve times holding a suitcase and an umbrella.
As the announcer roars the arrival of the New Year, everyone shrieks and cheers, and the Año Viejo is lit. In the heat and blast of light from the bonfire, everyone gives each other the abrazo del año nuevo, or the hug of the New Year, and wishes their friends and family a happy New Year. Across the streets of the villages and towns of Ecuador, bonfires burn. People are happy. The party has just started, and the country will be dancing and drinking until dawn.