A Fulbright Teacher in Bogota, Colombia, A Special Series – Night of the Little Candles The North Star Reports – by Laura Blasena. Sponsored by The College of St. Scholastica and The Middle Ground Journal
[Photo: Villa de Leyva as viewed from our hostel on a hill outside of the city.]
It´s December, which means that the majority of classes and all thing school-related have or are quickly coming to an end. Second semester of the academic school year in Colombia goes from the beginning of August to the beginning of December, but at my university the last two weeks of the semester are spent testing and giving presentations.
However, I, as an employee of the school, am still required to work, though that work is very minimal and far between.
This is due to the fact that there is a holiday on the night of the second Monday of December. It´s called Noche de Las Velitas—in English, Night of the Little Candles. As I´m sure you´ve guessed, it´s a holiday that involves candles. It´s celebrated on December 7th, the eve of the Immaculate Conception, and every town and city that celebrates it is filled with candles and lanterns and light set out in displays to honor the Virgin Mary. As with many cultural norms and holidays in Colombia, each region celebrates the holiday in a slightly different way.
In many areas of the Paisa (Antioquia) region of Colombia, Noche de las Velitas is celebrated several days before December 7th or 8th, a practice that is believed to come from the heavy Jewish ancestry in the area and a borrowing and mixing of Hannakuh ideas.
Bogota is said to have a fabulous candle and light display in the Plaza Bolivar, but small towns outside of the city are equally well known for their dedication to the holiday. One such town is Villa de Leyva. Thus, on Monday morning, I found myself on a bus bound once again for Villa de Leyva.
The little town was packed for the holiday. Not a single hostel had a room, and we were forced to rent a shared dormitory in a camping compound a fifteen minute walk outside of the town. Thankfully, with all of the Christmas lights and small candle displays, it was easy to walk along the dirt road to the plaza in the center of the town.
In Bogota and the surrounding area (Cundinamarca), La Noche de las Velitas is also considered the high-point of Christmas decorations, so the cobblestones streets we walked were packed with people, candles, and an amazing array of Christmas lights and decorations as well. The main plaza, packed tightly with people from Villa de Leyva and visitors from Bogota and the surrounding area, was roped off with police barriers. From roughly 9PM to 11PM, a massive array of fireworks were lit off from the plaza center as small children, sheltered by grandparents or parents sitting around them on borrowed chairs, melted multi-colored candles onto the cobblestones.
The night´s fireworks also featured the lighting of large metal-wire statues covered with fireworks. There were pinwheels, towers, and signs with words—all of which was surprisingly close to the public. Two rows of police barriers created a fringe of maybe ten feet between watchers and the fireworks that filled the plaza. Scraps of cardboard rained down on watchers. Ash and dust and smoke filled the air.
The next morning, when we walked through the plaza to find breakfast, the cobblestones were plastered with bits of cardboard, metal wire, and stones plastered with the cooled wax of many a melted candle.
About our special correspondent Laura Blasena: Ever since I was a little Kindergartner I’ve always wanted to be a teacher.
I graduated from St. Scholastica in the summer of 2015 with a double major in Elementary Education and Spanish Education after student teaching as a 5th grade teacher and also as a Spanish teacher at NorthStar in Duluth, Minnesota.
While my future plans before graduation were initially to become a classroom teacher, I decided to wait a year to begin teaching in the United States and have chosen to work as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Bogota, Colombia. In Colombia, I will be working with a university as an assistant in the language department, attending classes, running conversation clubs, and offering the perspective of a native speaker.
I’ve always loved to travel. In college, I participated in several study abroad trips, visiting England, Guatemala, and Mexico. (I loved visiting Mexico so much that I even went back a second time!). I’m looking forward to the travel opportunities that I will have while working and living in Colombia.
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13 responses to “A Fulbright Teacher in Bogota, Colombia, A Special Series – Night of the Little Candles The North Star Reports – by Laura Blasena. Sponsored by The College of St. Scholastica and The Middle Ground Journal”
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I love learning about other cultures holidays and the customs that they do for them. The idea of having a night full of candles, fire works and lights sounds absolutely incredible. I wonder what the fascination of lights exactly means or what their view of them could be? I’m sure the experience would be breathtaking!
This is a really cool holiday! I have never heard of this before in my life. I knew that in South America the Virgin Mary received much attention, but I did not know about this huge celebration. The amount of light and fireworks and festivities sounds almost overwhelming! Do you know what do the candles symbolize?
What percentage of Colombia’s population is religious? I’m curious how many people celebrate the holiday because of a strong religious devotion and if there are people who celebrate it as more of a community devotion. Do you feel the holiday has detached itself from its religious context in any way?
Growing up taking many Spanish classes and learning about the cultures in Central and South America I have never heard about this. It was very interesting to read about how the citizens go all out and some of the instances you talked about reminded me a little a bit of the fourth of July. What fascinated me was how you said they had giant metal statues with fireworks on them. Who or what were the statues of? Is this holiday celebrated only in Colombia? Great article it was really interesting!
Great article, I felt I was there watching the fireworks and waking up the morning after finding all the cooled wax. It sounds like you had an amazing cultural experience by witnessing this celebration. Did you take in any similarities with this holiday to other holidays you are more accustomed with? I find it interesting to see how interconnected holidays can be across cultures.
In the States we have unique traditions that I believe we assume everyone else has the same or similar traditions. This assumption is wrong, the traditions and celebrations may be similar in one way or another, but they are completely unique to the geographical area. What exactly was the function of the metal statues besides having the fireworks on them, if any? Great article, it was very intriguing to continue the breakdown of our celebrations and traditions being universal!
You’re description of the lanterns, candles, lights, and decorations sounded beautiful! Were the lights and decorations meant as a symbol or representation for the holiday? If so, were you able to find out what the symbolized or represented? You wrote that some of the lights or fireworks even spelled out words? What words were used? It sounded like you had s a fun and interesting time at the celebration. Thank you for sharing!
What a great way to spice up the holiday cheer! This was great to hear about another holiday tradition from another culture. I bet it was a beautiful sight to see, it sounds like a wonderful tradition to be apart of. I have never heard of this tradition, and would love to participate someday. Good luck with teaching!
This must have been spectacular. I love fireworks and any excuse to see them is more than okay with me. I find it so amazing that within one religion there is such a wide variety of celebrations and traditions. I also find the timing and the link to Hanukkah to be intriguing.
I think sometimes I get so wrapped up in my own culture that i forget about jumping up and peeking out of the box. It would be amazing to celebrate a foreign holiday, learn all the history and to be present during the event would be amazing. I like how you mentioned that your region moves the celebration earlier to coincide with their celebrations. I attended a powwow once and i learned so much about the festival culture, like the women will make a shrill sound when pleased with the dance. It was a very exciting experience