As December gets underway, you will no doubt begin to hear Colombians talking about their upcoming novenas, a tradition unique to Colombia and parts of Ecuador and Venezuela, which takes place every night for the nine days preceding Christmas.
But what is a novena? While it may vary from house to house, there are certain things that have to happen no matter the place or the parche.
Let’s start with the basics: praying and eating. At every novena, there is plenty of food, the main attractions being buñuelos and natilla (a custard-based dessert made with panela and cinnamon or arequipe). Sometimes there are tamales, potato salad or turkey.
Then there’s the praying. In between carols or aguinaldos, the prayer book is passed around for each guest to read aloud. The rest of the time is spent nattering and catching up, although as there are nine nights of novenas in a row, they usually wrap up early.
The exact format of the novenas changes depending on the people. If you’re celebrating with friends, it will no doubt turn into a novena bailable – after all, Christmas isn’t all about eating and praying. Dancing and drinking will of course become an integral part of the night. Although by the time people decide to pray, they’re often too hopped up on guaro to be able to read the prayer book.
So be prepared – Christmas here effectively starts on December 16, when buñuelos and natilla become the daily diet. So much more than a religious gathering, a novena is family tradition, and a wonderful excuse to get together with friends and loved ones, share a glass of wine and simply parchar. Colombian folklore at its finest.
By Sebastián Payán