Last night was my fourth Noche de las Velitas (Night of the Little Candles). Lighting candles to welcome Mary on her journey to Bethlehem, and thus officially starting the Christmas season, is one of my favourite Colombian traditions.
My first Noche de las Velitas, after living in Mampujan for two months, was completely new to me and didn’t actually take place at night time at all. Community members told me that we were going to get up at 4 am and put out candles. I didn’t really believe them. That is, until my friend Triana started banging on the walls of my house at four in the morning to come and light candles. Blurry eyed, I rolled out from under my mosquito net and stumbled outside, to see that a number of youth had lit a row of candles right in front of my door. It was beautiful to wander around Mampujan and see people I was just starting to know lighting candles on doorsteps and street corners.
The next year, I set my alarm for 4 am, and lit my own candles as friends gathered in front of my house. Together, we greeted people that had been strangers to me the first year, but were now my friends and neighbours. I felt at home to stop and chat with different families, until kids would call me over to come and see their candles, at the next stop on my route. The whole thing still didn’t feel particularly Christmassy, but it was beautiful.
Last year, I was involved in a radio marathon for 12 hours on December 7th and barely had time outside of the broadcasting station. On my way home, I managed to see the candles for about half an hour in the park, before falling in bed, exhausted.
Last night, I was out on the Parkway in all of its Christmas glory. Things got started with a 6 hour concert, hosted by the Bogota Philharmonic orchestra. There were cellos, and a cappella choirs and for a brief moment, a rapping Santa Claus. Crowds of people gathered in family groups around every park bench and rows of candles lined the sidewalks. Kids laughed and shrieked and parents shared bottles of wine.
The classical concert combined with a colder climate created an evening that felt more like a Canadian Christmas then anything I had experienced in Colombia up to this moment. Yet, despite the people milling everywhere, the beauty of the music, and the light coming from a thousand candles, I still don’t really know my neighbours.
When I moved to the city, I traded in being an object of gossip and curiosity to being anonymous and independent, while at the same time losing a sense of living in community. Combined with the availability of cheddar cheese and the lack of rats living in my house, I like urban life for the most part, but I still miss the familiarity of knowing my neighbours and the beauty of 4am candle lighting in Mampujan.
As we milled about last night, I was just one more member of the crowd. Yet, that is what life in the city is all about. After all, besides their small group, nobody else knew everyone either, even if they had lived in Bogota all their lives.
Yet, there were still familiar faces and scenes, glimpses of the community and kindness I know also exist in Bogota- the little boy that lives downstairs, a work colleague, a elderly man who let us know exactly what coming next on the concert program so we wouldn’t “miss a thing,” the woman standing next to me who lit my candle from her own.
From Calle 53, which is decked out for the season by the end of October, to the lights adorning every public park, Bogota loves Christmas. Even if we don’t all know each other, we all still celebrate in public spaces together; one way is by lighting candles on December 7th, and knowing that everyone else around the country is doing the same, even in Mampujan, whether we know each other’s names or not.