Novena de Aguinaldos (Colombian Christmas tradition)

A group of Colombian friends who live near Knoxville have kept a Colombian tradition for about 15 years now. Every December they set up a 9-day schedule, from December 16th to December 24th, and take turns to host the Novena de Aguinaldos. This novena is a Catholic tradition that involves a 9-day group prayer to prepare for the Christmas season. The Novena de Aguinaldos11 (aguinaldo can be a small Christmas gift or a Christmas carol) include several prayers, lively singing, and readings to help reflect on the birth of Jesus. Colombian gift-giving happens on Christmas Eve; the belief is that the Baby Jesus brings presents, typically left under the bed, said Nora Cannata.

Nora Cannata is the hostess tonight. She is originally from Barranquilla, but has lived in US for over 30 years. Participants arrive one by one, and great each other with a kiss on the cheek. They chat cheerfully about their friends, family, and events of the day--even though they might have been together as recently as last night! The group has expanded to friends-of-friends, and many nationalities, they may travel from Oak Ridge to Sevierville. Participants may come to one or all the nine nights of prayer.

Patricia Van-Heyningen was the inspiring force of the Knoxville Novena tradition. She keeps a scrapbook with pictures of Novenas of years past. Everyone looked a little bit younger, but they have the same cheerful smiles. "At the beginning we met just to pray la Novena, but since several of us worked, we later added a meal." Patricia remembers she used to carry a pesebre (nativity scene) to be set as the centerpiece. Traditionally Novenas are held around a pesebre.

Patricia shows a picture of a pesebre which represents the entire town of Bethlehem. "It was always covered with moss," she said of her family tradition. Besides the nativity, it shows Colombian clay houses, even mountains, and rivers and lakes. Also included are snow-covered houses, sleds and skating figurines, more traditional of the US. Patricia recalls going out to the woods on December 8, an observed holiday in Colombia, to pick up moss. "Candlelight illuminated the scene. And if a candle is jarred and falls it would set a fire! Then buckets of water would drown it out!"

Nora's house is beautifully decorated in gold and red this year, and she offers lemonade punch and white chocolate peppermint brittle she and her daughters make every December. They also cook a variety of cookies and sweets. After everyone has arrived, the group of about fifteen sits in a circle and each picks an instrument of their choice: maracas, tambourines, triangle, bells, even a turtle shell! Traditional instruments such as a Colombian raspa (wooden slotted instrument played by rubbing a metal pin, traditionally used in coastal Colombian) and a sweet sounding bunch of hollow seeds attached to a stick. Patricia has collected these instruments throughout the years. "At first we just used wooden spoons, pots, and pans!" she recalls.

Paula, the youngest in the group, leads the group in prayer, by reading the daily prayer. Instruments and voices burst into a chorus calling up to Baby Jesus to "come, come, come to us, don't be late!"12 Cheery Patricia scolds those who might chuckle, and asks them to put a donation on a small box. On Christmas Day the money collected is used for charity. The Novena continues with a set sequence of prayers, the Lord's prayer and Hail Marys, singing and acclamations.

"This is the best way to get into the Christmas season. While other people are rushing in stores, spending money on presents, we get together with friends and enjoy each other's company while reflecting on the true meaning of Christmas," Elsa Bryan said.

After the prayer, everyone sang villancicos (Christmas carols) to Latin rhythms. Theseare Spanish upbeat Christmas songs.13 Nora said, "They are not solemn and sad, like some Christmas carols here. Latin American Christmas is all about singing and dancing on the streets!" Christmas in Colombia is typically warm!

The meal followed the singing. Salad, chicken, potato and bean soup "good enough to raise one up from the dead," followed by New York cheesecake and Colombian coffee and an assortment of cookies. Meals here are not quite the same as in Colombia. Each region of Colombia has a traditional Christmas dish. In Bogotá, the capital, people prepare ajiaco. It is a chicken-based soup, that calls for about seven different types of potatoes, and a special herb called huasca. "Huascas might be available in Miami, Chicago or New York, but not here," Nora explains. In Barranquilla, ajiacos are made according to various family recipes and exchanged with neighbors and friends. On December 25, breakfast is typically chocolate and tamal.

"Año nuevo, vida nueva. A saber que noticias traerá. Año nuevo, vida nueva. Con salud y prosperidad …" New year, new life, sings the CD. Who knows what kind of news it will bring. New year, new life. With health and prosperity.
"On New Year's Eve people get together again for more dancing, drinking champagne and eating 12 grapes," Nora's sister said. "Some people put gold in their champagne, to bring prosperity. Others put three potatoes under a bed. One is unpeeled, one is peeled, and one is half-peeled. After midnight, you reach under to get one of the potatoes and that will determine your luck for the year." Some years are better than others. "I remember my grandmother used to crack an egg in water. If it formed a pretty flower, that meant a proper year. But if the egg ended up flat, ugly, that was a bad year to come,” somebody shared.

Others chime in with more folk tales and New Year superstitions. "Some people get to their door at midnight and throw out a pot of water, in order to shoo away the bad spirits." "Others take a suitcase and walk around the block, as that is supposed to bring adventure and traveling." "At some houses, the host gives everyone a few cents, so that the New Year brings you money…"

Nora said in Barranquilla the long Christmas season extends even further to January 20, when the Carnival Queen is crowned. Forty days later, a 4-day carnival with a lot of drinking and partying leads to Ash Wednesday when everyone goes to church with a hangover.

It is past 10 p.m. when everyone slowly says goodbyes with a hug and a kiss on the cheek. Tomorrow they will meet again at another friend's house.

Watch Video 42: Group praying la Novena de Aguinaldos, in 2012. Video by Rafael Casco.


Watch Video 46: Singing part of la Novena de Aguinaldos, with music from traditional percussion instruments. Video by Rafael Casco.


Photo 43: Large pesebre or nativity scene, year 2000. Photo by Patricia Van-Heyningen.


Photo 44: Detail showing a raspa (long wooden instrument), a maraca, and a novenario (prayer book). Photo by Rafael Casco.


Photo 45: Rafael Casco and Nora Cannata sing villancicos (Christmas carols.) Rafael is playing a turtle shell instrument. Photo by Coral Getino.

11 Camacho, Jairo, editor.  El libro de la Navidad, época de unión, paz y amor. Colombia:  Educar Cultural y Educativa, S.A., 1997.

13 Música Navideña al Estilo Colombiano (Colombian Style Chrismtas Music, in Spanish.) 


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