Why Colombians Burn Life-Size Dolls on New Year’s Eve (& Other Traditions)
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.
\\ 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.
Burn Away the Old Year
We’ll admit, this tradition made us think back to creepy dolls with minds of their own as well as the 1973 movie, “The Wicker Man”. Though the latter makes sense seeing as this tradition is somewhat similar to burning the Guy on Bonfire Night in Britain (though that tradition occurs in November and not during the holidays).
This interesting Colombian tradition consists mainly of a human-sized doll-like effigy — known as Año Viejo or Old Year — that is stuffed with fireworks (again with the fireworks), rags, and sawdust during the weeks leading up to the New Year. Then at the stroke of midnight on December 31st locals set fire to the doll; which, if done currently, should explode and burn. This symbolizes the burning of the Old Year and all of the bad juju that went with it.
GOOD TO KNOW: during the weeks leading up to the New Year you will likely see many of these large, human-sized dolls being sold all over the place. While they don’t have to look like someone in particular, supposedly over the years, people have started to make their Año Viejo dolls look like certain political figures, cartoons and even celebrities (and animals).
Other popular Colombian New Year’s traditions include cleaning your house before the stroke of midnight (usually on the 31st) just to make sure everything is nice and fresh for the new year, wearing new yellow-colored underwear (this should guarantee more love and happiness in the upcoming 12 months), putting wheat on your table — which symbolizes a bountiful year full of good food, and one of our favorites, carrying your suitcase around the block — which unsurprisingly, should guarantee more adventures and travel in the next 12 months.
Finally, another interesting New Year’s tradition — though one that might only be common in the Valle de Cauca region (and specifically the city of Cali) is to get up early on the 31st of December and head to the local river. By bathing in the river — with soap of course — you are supposedly ridding your body of bad energies and starting clean and fresh for the New Year. Now if you can’t make it to the river, you can also just wash at home with sea salt.
Partying on New Year’s Eve
We don’t know if this is necessarily a “Colombian tradition” but it seems to be pretty common for people to stay up until dawn on the 1st (so the whole New Year’s Eve night). At least this was the case where we celebrated the coming of the new year in Salento.
While this might not be super unheard of in other places, one interesting thing to note is that while in the US it is common to spend the night partying with friends at a bar or club, in Colombia it is standard to spend New Year’s Eve in the company of your family, often with a big dinner and a few drinks. And if people do decide to head out, it tends to be after midnight.
We personally saw this happen during our New Year’s Even celebration in Salento. While the main plaza was packed with people, for the most part, it was families hanging out together, drinking a beer or some aguardiente (the local liquor) and dancing to traditional Colombian music. It wasn’t until around 1 AM that the party started to feel more like a nightclub.
\\ Our Experience Spending the Holidays in Colombia
Right when we landed in Salento our Colombian friends warned us that the town would get very busy the closer it got to Christmas and New Year’s Eve. At first, we didn’t really believe them. But come December 21st — when the first couple of massive tourist buses started to arrive and the narrow streets started to clog with cars — we began to get the idea.
Salento is a great town to spend the holidays if you are looking to get an up-close view of what a traditional Colombian Christmas and New Year’s Eve is like. The town really turns up the holiday spirit — from lighting up the main square (in Willy and palm tree décor no less) to shooting off fireworks every day to constructing a massive tent in the plaza that fills up every night with locals looking to dance to traditional music (and of course some reggaetón).
If you want all of the energy and excitement that comes with the holidays, then Salento is a fantastic place to base yourself. Though with that being said, there are a few things to know before booking your bus ticket:
| The celebrations in the main square can become quite noisy. Even though we were living 5 blocks from the main square we still fell asleep (sometimes rather difficultly) to the sound of music from the plaza. While this would have been fine for a couple of nights, in truth, the parties occurred from before Christmas all the way until the first week of January.
So if you are thinking of staying in Salento during the holidays, we recommend booking a place far away from the square and/or investing in some good earplugs.
| It can be a challenge to get around. This is especially true in the more popular areas of the town (the main plaza and Calle Real). Because of how popular Salento is for local tourists, the streets become packed with people easily by midday. Similarly, if for some reason you are thinking of driving to Salento, be prepared for stop-and-go traffic all the way from the main highway up to the city — and then even more so in town.
| Good luck leaving. We made the mistake of leaving Salento in the first couple of days of January and paid the price when the usual 40-minute bus ride from Armenia to Salento ended up taking over 2 hours (and that included us hopping out before reaching town to walk the last bit). If you are looking to leave town, definitely go early in the morning before the town fully wakes up.
INSIDER TIP: if looking to catch a bus up to Salento from the town of Armenia, then you should definitely head straight to the main bus terminal instead of waiting for the bus on the side of the road in town. We tried to get a bus in the middle of downtown Armenia and it was 100% full (three times). Even when we got to the terminal, we still had to jostle our way onto the next empty bus.
| Book things ahead of time. We personally didn’t have to worry about booking a place to stay during the holidays, but we heard from other travelers that places were a) completely booked and/or b) were waaaay more expensive. Just like in other places, during the holidays finding a place to stay can be way more of a hassle — not to mention way more pricey. If possible, we recommend booking your accommodations a good bit in advance (at least a month out) in order to make sure you have a spot to stay.
INSIDER TIP: while we like to travel more by the seat of our pants (i.e. find accommodation when we get to our destination) sometimes it is just better to plan ahead. In those instances, we tend to book our stays through Hostelworld since it is nice to have an idea of what you are getting before you arrive (plus paying online is nice and easy). Check out Hostelworld for yourself here.
While Salento sometimes became a bit too crazy for us (mainly the reggaetón being blasted at 2 AM) we loved spending the holidays in the cute mountain town. While we have heard of other towns in Colombia being amazing for the holidays (mainly Medellin for their light displays and Cartagena for their parties) we wouldn’t change the way we rang in the New Year.
Colombia definitely knows how to celebrate the holidays. From wild parties that last until dawn to unique and colorful light displays across the country to burning human-sized effigies in the streets, this is a country that really does the holiday’s right. If you are looking to celebrate Christmas and New Year’s Eve then we highly recommend doing it in this South American country.
Hopefully, this guide on all the unique holiday traditions gives you a good idea of what to expect in Colombia between the months of December and January.
If you are looking for even more travel guides on the country — including more information on the best adventures and destinations — then make sure to head over to www.backroadpackers.com to explore more!