Camel, Bogotá

Already in October, the large department store Falabella has opened up its specialty area for the holidays — and the holidays here in Colombia do not include Thanksgiving. Silver platters and green trees and gold tinsel are upon us. Across the city, large red or green tents are about to sprout on empty lots, and tables of Christmas ornaments are about to sprout throughout the tents. Fake Christmas trees abound, blue and red, and, if necessary, green(!), and shopping center plazas are ready to become home to artisan and craft vendors’ festive offerings.

La Navidad beckons and perhaps nowhere more than on Calle 53 in midtown Bogotá is that true. Calle 53 is ready to fulfill holiday longings and handcrafters’ dreams year round, but this long Bogotá street moves into super gear come October. Blocks upon blocks of stores (I do not exaggerate) sell whatever it is you need to wrap your personality around your very own Christmas ornament — taffeta, dwarfs, fabric paint, a wreath, dried leaves, plaster angels, a wooden crèche — you name it, we’ve got it right here on 53rd Street, Bogotá. Bogotanos (and Colombians in general) are very craft conscious and from the looks of things on Calle 53 very into spending at the very least a couple of months getting sparkle and glue to say that this Christmas ornament is just so me.

Christmas Tree, Bogotá

53rd Street is Martha Stewart gone wild. Ideas, ideas, ideas. Colombia celebrates all holidays with verve and music, but Christmas has a special place in the culture. Christmas and the holiday season are not particularly religious, more festive, and very celebratory. Strangely enough, into this mix play an inordinate number of fairy figures, skinny leggy creatures with large noses whose ancestry is vaguely Brothers Grimm, partly Victorian English, and immensely popular in Colombia.

Beyond 53rd Street, there are other areas of the city where Christmas arrives early. On a weekend in early November, I was downtown with a local friend. The mesh of streets that abut the Jiménez Transmilenio stop are chock-a-block with street vendors and Christmas tree hawkers. The streets are strewn with blankets of Chinese imports — lights, lights, lights, and local grown product — holiday paper lanterns or luminarias for approximately $3 the dozen. This area is a vast indoor outdoor souk of negotiation and buying and selling, magical, and best appreciated in the company of a knowledgeable Bogotano. This is the Casbah relocated to South America. I love it. Ruined buildings with incredibly ornate tile floors sell shampoo and aluminum pots and recycled paper and Christmas lights while across the street other stores in nooks and crannies sell wedding dresses and contraband name brand underwear. All the while, thousands of shoppers brush shoulders with knife sharpeners and avocado sellers and children’s toy vendors and if you ask, someone will politely direct you to where you can find this week’s bootleg movies.

Plaza Bolivar, Colombia

By the first week in November (this year advanced into October!), city workers have already begun construction of the immense Christmas tree form in the Parque Nacional on Carrera Septima (7th Avenue). Carrera Septima is about to be transformed into the showplace of the city. By mid-December, it will be possible nightly to join thousands of sightseers who amble these blocks to ooh and aah at the impressive light displays on show. The Colpatria Building (Bogotá’s Empire State) puts on a nightly light show which is city defining year round, but in December is only one of the many super light shows on display along la Septima.

Christmas Lights, Bogotá

I mentioned to a European friend last year how festive Colombia is for the holidays, how extraordinary the explosion of lights across the country. She asked me, “Well, where is the tourist office on this? How come nobody knows about it?” Good questions.

The outburst of seasonal light in Colombia is a phenomenon. One December night, I took an unforgettable bus trip from Bogotá to Boyacá. Throughout the countryside, houses lit up in the night. Church steeples were outlined in the hills, and villages danced like near flung planets. The bus radio lulled, and minute after minute the night presented new comets of light in the dark.

Christmas Lights, Colombia

In Cali for New Year’s just a couple of years ago, along the Rio Cali the city center was illuminated by an extraordinary display of electricity. Tableaux lit up the history of the city scene by scene as thousands of citizens passed to observe and be awed. And Cali is not unique. In this country where regionalism rules, cities compete to have the most impressive light displays. Theme and design are essential. I am not going to get involved here in whether Medellin or Cali is the winner, but I will say that seen from space Colombia must shine bright as a bonfire on planet earth during the holiday season.

Monserrate, Bogotá

Meanwhile back in Bogotá, floating like an esoteric moon in the darkness, the satellite white church of Monserrate is lit high above the city year round. But, for the holidays, when you look up from a city street, the Christmas lights that adorn Monserrate seem like the perfect complement to the colorful lights far below.

Lights also twinkle in my favorite place in Bogotá during these months — the colonial church, El Templo de San Francisco (400 years old and looking forward), on the Plaza Santander across from the Museo del Oro, the Gold Museum, downtown. Here is sanctuary from the rain and the crush of the crowds and the constant bombardment of noise on La Septima. Here too is the holiday season in the form of a creche by the altar. And here too are lights, subdued, the candle offerings at the side altars. The red candles are no longer real candles, but they light up just the same in the dusk of the church. And as the year winds down, these small lights encourage reflection under the heavy wood rafters and gold gilt altars of the church. At the very least El Templo de San Francisco gives respite for more than the fleeting festive minute. Here is the historical connection with the weighted history of Western culture in Colombia. And until the glitter and impressive electric show of Christmas along la Septima calls out again, El Templo de San Francisco offers reasoned understanding of mystery.

Candles, Bogotá

During the holiday season in Colombia, lights rule unforgettably and uniquely. For the intrepid traveler, the seasonal lights of Colombia are the fulfillment of the promise of travel – surprise, astonishment, and the acknowledgment that the richness of life extends beyond anticipated parameters. Magic awaits, and within that magic if we pay attention, just possibly the joy of the season.

A version of this piece originally appeared on Gale, Cengage Learning’s Speaking Globally blog: http://blog.gale.com/speakingglobally/the-view-from-here/let-there-be-lights-colombia-celebrates-the-holidays//

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