The celebration of Christmas is a curious mix of Christian and pagan traditions in Europe, and indeed has absorbed many influences from other cultures in its unparalleled spread across the globe. As such, its festivities exhibit some parallels, but equally manifest themselves in manners completely unique to a particular region. Latin America is particularly rich in this variety, given its waves of immigration and history of Catholic colonisation. Medellín, the second city of Colombia has become renowned internationally for its particularly vibrant take on Christmas, with the city centre plastered in millions of brightly coloured fairy lights every festive season, known locally as ‘The Lighting’ or El Alumbrado in Spanish.
The illuminations of Medellín were initially borne out of a distinctly Colombian Christmas custom: El Día de las Velitas (‘Little Candles Day’). It is traditional on 7th December, considered the eve of the Immaculate Conception, for Colombians to adorn windows and doorways with candles in honour of the Virgin Mary. With the advent of electric lighting, this celebration became an altogether more public affair, with the public utilities company EPM starting to decorate the city with modest displays of coloured lights.
Fast forward to 2014, and the Alumbrado is celebrating its 50th birthday. Over its lifetime it has mushroomed into a spectacle that attracts up to 4 million spectators, along the course of the Medellín River, Avenida la Playa and some 100 other locations across the city. With the advent of technology, the colours are ever more vivid and the styling more ambitious. This year’s display has been lauded as especially spectacular, with more than 30 million light bulbs depicting scenes relating to peace, reconciliation and the humanity associated with the festive period. To yield such awe inspiring results is truly a mammoth task, with the first lights needing to be hung in late summer in order to ensure everything is ready for the big reveal at the end of November.
If you are lucky enough to travel in Colombia in December, Medellín by night is sure to even ignite something of a Christmas spirit in its hardiest opponents thanks to the uniqueness of the celebration. These are the best Christmas traditions – those that demonstrate a personal and local touch, quite at odds with the bland commercialism that we often witness elsewhere. Before you part ways to indulge in your own Christmas festivities, perhaps share some of your own traditions with your classmates to make their own celebrations that little bit more memorable. Feliz Navidad!
Your Friendly Spanish team