Christmas Colombian (Barranquilla) Style vs. Christmas Alabama Style

Posted on 14/02/2013

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After two years of celebrating Christmas abroad, I was finally able to make it back to my home city (Hueytown, Alabama) to spend Christmas 2012 with my family. There really is nothing like spending Christmas with the ones you love most and in the comfort of your “home.” I most definitely indulged in my fair share of homemade southern goodies, and tried to soak up as much family time as possible, especially with my sister and baby nephew, Cason.

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Dad, Hoop, and baby Cason

More Family

Bum, Winter, Mamaw, Brooke, and Mom

Family on Couch

Mamaw, Holly, baby Cason, Zac, and Grandaddy

Paige & Cason Christmas Tree

Me and baby Cason

Even so, before I left for Dixie,  I spent a good portion of my “Christmas Season” here in Barranquilla, Colombia. As I’ve told many people since I moved to this tropical Caribbean city, 90 degree weather does not provoke a Christmas spirit in me. Christmas for me is cold weather, wrapping up in my mom’s warm Mexican blanket, sipping hot apple cider, wearing scarves and thick jackets, and eating as many peppermint flavored “seasonal” goodies as possible. I feel confident in saying that my idea of Christmas is the exact opposite of the concept of Christmas that most people here in Barranquilla (and most of Colombia) have.

Decorations

I think, perhaps, the only similarity between an Alabama Christmas and a Barranquilla Christmas are the decorations people use–which I find quite ironic, considering most people here in Barranquilla have never seen snow and for sure have most likely never built a real snowman. Even so, you will see lots of snowmen, Santas, and Christmas trees adorning public and private spaces. Having said that, I’ve always wondered why you don’t see Christmas flamingos (commonly found further north on the Colombian Caribbean coast), Santas in swim shorts, and Christmas themed palm trees here–all decorations you would expect to see in the “tropical” and coastal areas of the United States where Christmas is not necessarily cold (e.g. Miami, San Diego, Orlando). To each their own, I guess!

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Christmas decorations in the shopping center: Buenavista in Barranquilla, Colombia

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Christmas decorations in the shopping center: Buenavista in Barranquilla, Colombia

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Christmas decorations in the shopping center: Buenavista in Barranquilla, Colombia

Dress

I am not sure if it is a U.S. phenomenon or not, but come December, stores are filled with Christmas themed socks, underwear, shirts, pants, hats, and accessories, and people not only deck themselves out with this holiday attire, but you’ll see cars, trucks, and pets dressed in Christmas gear as well.

Here in Barranquilla, I have observed very few Christmas themed accessories and/or pieces of clothing. I am not sure if it’s the weather–too hot for a Christmas sweater, or if it’s a cultural thing–keeping Christmas more religious and less secular.

If novenas–gatherings that occur during the nine days before Christmas centered around a different prayer each evening–occurred in the United States, I am more than sure that people would deck out in Christmas attire. Although Colombians do get dressed up for these occasions, they are not usually dressed in anything specifically associated with Christmas.

Music

One major difference between an Alabamian and Barranquillan Christmas is the music listened to. Barranquillan Christmas music (and most Colombian Christmas music, for that matter) sounds not at all like Alabama Christmas music. Apart from the typical U.S. Christmas songs, in the South we enjoy a good country remake of traditional Christmas songs as well as other country songs associated with Christmas. Here, in Barranquilla, the Christmas music sounds very much like “party” music–it is VERY lively and, to be quite honest, makes you want to get around and move. It’s not music for sitting in front of the fire while drinking hot chocolate. It’s more like music for dancing with a cup of spiced wine or your cold beverage of choice.

*Note: You will hear Spanish versions of traditional Christmas songs like Silent Night, and O Holy Night occasionally as well as Colombian versions of Jingle Bells and the like.

Parades

The Christmas parade you see in Barranquilla has some similarties to one you might see in Alabama, but definitely has some obvious differences. I can recall numerous images and memories of Christmas parades I’ve watched in Alabama. I can remember making sure I took a plastic bag with me to collect candy that would most assuredly been thrown from the antique cars, fire engines, and dance/school groups particpating in the parade. I remember bundling up from head to toe some years, and other years going in a light jacket–winter, like all seasons, can be a bit unpredictable in Alabama. The sounds I most remember from the parades in Alabama are all related to mostly upbeat “secular” Christmas songs–Jingle Bells, Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree, Holly Jolly Christmas, etc…

The Christmas parades I’ve attended in Barranquilla, however, conjure up different memories… Memories of shorts, tank tops, Spanish, extremely loud music, palm trees in the distance, and the smell of fried street food being sold nearby. Even so, there was something vaguely “homely” and familiar about the Christmas parades in Barranquilla–they felt small and very tied to the community. Even though Barranquilla is Colombia’s 4th largest city, its Christmas parades were small enough to make me feel a tinge of Alabamaness circulating through them…

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 Dancers in the Barranquilla Christmas parade!

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 Dancers in the Barranquilla Christmas parade!

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 Dancers in the Barranquilla Christmas parade!

Food

The traditional foods associated with Christmas in Barranquilla are also extremely different from the foods Alabamians associate with Christmas. In Alabama, we are big fans of cassaroles, baked ham or roasted turkey, hearty soups (potatoe soup, chili, taco soup etc…), vegetable dishes, and, of course, Christmas themed desserts such as peppermint fudge or peppermint bark, red velvet cake, and any desserts that can be made to “look” Christmas-y (i.e. red and green or with images of Christmas figures: snowmen, Santa, etc…). Here in Barranquilla, and most of Colombia, though, the foods associated with Christmas include mainly breads and sweets such as: a type of semi-sweet pudding called natilla, a salty, fried bread ball made with artisan cheese called buñuelo,  and rice cooked in sweet milk dotted with raisins called arroz con leche. I am sure there are many more dishes associated with Christmas here, but these are the most common and the ones I have most seen prepared during the holiday season.

As I went home (Alabama) for Christmas this year, I thought I would try and incorporate some Colombian Christmas into my Alabama Christmas. I took a box mix of natilla (arequipe/caramel flavored) home with me and made a batch for two of our family Christmas get-togethers. I knew some would be skiddish about trying a food with such a unique texture, a mix between a think pudding and jellow, but was truly surprised by how many of my family members did not like natilla. There were a few who liked it, but for the most part it became the outcast among the Southern Christmas desserts laid out for consumption.

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Eating buñuelos (left) and natilla (right) with some good friends and co-workers

Even so, I did manage to have success with some amazingly unique (at least for those of us from the USA) Christmas cookies I took with me from Colombia. My Colombian friends laughed when I told them I was taking these cookies home with me to give out to my younger cousins and nephew. However, I had a feeling they would be a hit, and they were! Not only were they something extremely unique, but they were incredibly yummy as well. I am not too sure why, but you would be hard pressed to find a wide variety of Christmas cookies in the shapes of religious figures associated with Christmas in the USA; in Colombia, perhaps because it is a Catholic nation, there is a smorgasborg of cookies in the shapes of the three wisemen, the nativity, etc…

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Nativity cookies: Donkey, Joseph, baby Jesus, Mary, three wisemen!

I don’t know which Christmas traditions are better, but I do know that I enjoyed celebrating a mix of Colombian and Alabamian Christmas traditions during the holiday season of 2012. I also know that no matter where I am–Colombia, Alabama, England, etc…–celebrating Christmas and soaking up the holiday aires is something I will always enjoy.

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