THE COLOMBIAN PEOPLE SURE KNOW HOW TO CELEBRATE THE HOLIDAYS. FROM HANGING OUT WITH FAMILY, TO LIGHTING UP THE SKY WITH FIREWORKS, TO FILLING YOUR POCKETS WITH LENTILS, HERE IS EVERYTHING A TRAVELER NEEDS TO KNOW ABOUT SPENDING THE WINTER HOLIDAYS IN COLOMBIA.
If you are a traveler looking to get a better idea of what it is like to actually spend the winter holidays (mainly Christmas and New Year's Eve) in the exciting country of Colombia, then you have come to the right place.
Below you will find helpful information on all of the important Colombian holiday traditions - including why they put lentils in their pockets and burn a human-sized doll - as well as insight on our own personal experience celebrating the holidays in the small mountain town of Salento.
COLOMBIAN HOLIDAY TRADITIONS + WHAT TRAVELERS CAN EXPECT
\\ Christmas Traditions in Colombia
Christmas Eve is a Big Deal
If there is one thing you should know about Christmas in Colombia it is that Christmas Eve is a much bigger deal than actual Christmas Day. We naively thought it would be a good idea to go out for dinner on Christmas Eve, but we soon realized that all of the restaurants were either already closed or were closing shortly. This is because everyone spends Christmas Eve at home, eating delicious food, drinking and just hanging out as a family.
INSIDER TIP: if traveling in the country on Christmas Eve, plan to spend it at your place of lodging and do all preparations (like grabbing food) early in the day.
Another interesting fact is that while in many other countries kids await the arrival of Santa Claus for presents, in Colombia the children stay up late on December 24 to receive presents delivered by Baby Jesus. In truth, Santa Claus is not a huge part of the Christmas holiday. While you can still see some images of jolly Old Nick, that is more because of the influence of TV and movies than an actual cultural thing.
Some Very Colombian Christmas Decorations
We noticed this right away when we arrived in central Colombia (Salento specifically) in early December. There were lights everywhere. From simple homes and restaurants to the town squares, everything was lit up in various bright colors.
Similarly, while in the USA you see a lot of Christmas decorations in the form of Santa Claus, reindeer and snowflakes, in Colombia they tend to focus more on objects and things that you would actually see during your stay. The most common decoration seemed to be various types of colorful birds; including, motmots (barranqueros), hummingbirds, toucans and other small colorful birds.
INSIDER TIP: while Salento did have colorful birds displayed around the square, they also had a lot of Willy decorations and palms. In fact, we found it quite amusing that the town put small lit-up palm tree decorations on actual tall palm trees.
Another common holiday decoration in Colombia was some form of the Nativity scene. While traveling around the coffee region, we saw various forms of this religious scene; including massive, slightly comical camels in the Santa Rosa de Cabal square to actual full-on displays in the Pereira bus station.
It is likely that you will see some form of this decoration throughout your Colombian travels during the holidays. Which makes sense as surveys and studies have estimated that 90% of the population are Christian (though the country does not actually have an official religion).
This was definitely something we were not expecting (maybe because in the USA we are only used to fireworks being set off on our Independence Day (4th of July). But that is definitely not the case in Colombia. In fact, it seems nothing screams Christmas and the holiday season like blasting off fireworks all day, every day for a couple of weeks.
If you are planning to travel around Colombia during the holidays, we recommend being prepared for random bursts of noise throughout the day. While we did notice that the use of fireworks gained more momentum the closer it got to New Year's Eve, we still heard plenty of loud blasts the whole week before Christmas.
Dia de Las Velitas
Another popular event during the holiday season is known as Dia de Las Velitas, or Day of the Little Candles. This holiday - which takes place on December 7th (eve of the Immaculate Conception) - is actually how most Colombians welcome the Christmas season. On the eve of the 7th families light hundreds of candles and paper lanterns and place them all over their homes, porches, streets and even in the town squares. This is meant to light the way of the Virgin Mary as she comes to bless their homes.
A great spot to see this festival and tradition in action is in the small town of Quimbaya (located about 6 hours south of Medellin, 3.5 hours north of Cali and 40 minutes west of Armenia). This traditional town celebrates Fiesta Nacional del Concurso de Alumbrados con Velas y Faroles or simply, the Candles and Lanterns Festival on December 7th and 8th. During these two days, the citizens of Quimbaya compete to see who can have the best display of candles and lanterns.
\\ New Year's Eve Traditions in Colombia
Consume 12 Grapes
This is supposed to bring you good luck for the New Year. This unique tradition actually goes all the way back to the early 1800s in Spain, when it became quite a common tradition for ringing in the New Year. While each grape represents good luck and prosperity for each new month, it also once was meant to ward off witches and evil.
GOOD TO KNOW: so why grapes? Well, many people believe the tradition of eating grapes came about because some grape growers in the Alicantese region (located in eastern Spain) had a really good harvest in December of 1895 and they needed to sell off a lot of their goods. So bam, now you eat grapes on New Year's Eve.
If participating in this tasty New Year's Eve tradition, you do need to make sure to eat one grape for every second during the countdown of the New Year at midnight to get the most "good luck".
Right Foot First
This literally just symbolizes starting the New Year off on the right foot. Simple, easy to understand (and do). Bonus points if you are doing it while dancing the old year away.
Lentils in Your Pocket
It doesn’t actually matter what type or really how many, just as long as you have some in your pocket when the clock strikes midnight. This popular legume supposedly is a symbol of plenty; so by having some in your pocket you are “guaranteeing” that the new year is a bountiful one.