Everyone kept asking me how I was going to celebrate the “Ano Viejo” – the Old Year – on 31st of Dec. Seemed odd, as in the US we like to focus on the new year, but whatever, I’ll go with it, i thought, and so i cheerfully wish my coworkers a very hearty “Happy Old Year!!” …. But the resulting highly amused laughter made me quickly realize I had committed yet another language/cultural fux pax. This was just the beginning of my learning about all the varied traditions relating to the Ecuadorian Old/New Year celebrations. Do not wish people a happy old year.
For example, want Good Luck in the new year? Well, everyone around here knows that best way to get it is to wear new Yellow Socks. And underwear. And women have the extra burden of having to go out and buy a new yellow bra as well. and don’t you dare try to just wear last years yellow underwear, it must be new or else it will not work. (not sure why not, guess the underwear luck gods are checking for that)
Want love? Wear new red socks. And underwear. (that one seems more a bit more cross-cultural…well maybe not the sock part).
Want Money in the new year? Wear, yes you guessed it, green. Socks and underwear.
as I’m one of those greedy people who just want to have it all…I spent the night toes crunched, wearing three pairs of socks…
Want to travel a lot in the coming year? No, has nothing to do with the color of your underwear. Instead grab those suitcases at midnight and take them for a walk around the block. I think it actually works too. The woman I was sitting next to on the plane was from Otavalo. And she said she had taken that suitcase walk around the block when she was still young and single, and here she was flying back from a 3 week trip around the US and was off to Panama in two weeks. I was convinced.
And in the topic of wishes, make sure to grab 12 grapes to eat at midnight. You get to make a wish with each one, sort of like blowing out the birthday cake candles. But better, because no one has to know how old youre getting.
One of the more particular Ecuadorian traditions is the idea of getting rid of all the bad things of the old year…and what better way to do that than burning an effigy of the old year. In the form of a Viejo –or an old man. Traditionally you take your old clothes and stuff them with sawdust (and often fireworks) to be set on fire right at the stroke of midnight (which seems like its getting quite busy with all the grape eating and suitcase walking, but somehow you have to fit it all in).
Sometimes you might make your old man to be a politician (although I heard a particular rumor that if you were caught burning Correa the president, it meant 5 years in jail) or sometimes you make it a member of your family. Not because you hate them. Just because. Our taxi amigo told me that last year they burned his 7 year old son, and this year the kids wanted to burn good ol’ dad. Just because. Although my friends family made sure that their mischievous 7 year old littler brother had his very own Viejo….of himself. with the goal of getting rid of all his ‘bad behavior’ from the past year. So that wasn’t a “just because”.
However, all holidays, even in Ecuador, seem to eventually get commercialized. So now in competition with the homemade viejos, you can buy your own. Either a semi-traditional one still made with sawdust and old clothes (just some random person’s old clothes rather than your own). The piles of sawdust viejos for sale stacked 10 men deep at the random corners felt a lot like a creepy post battle scene from the Civil War.
Now they have modern, papermache viejos. All sorts of well-know characters, to match all sorts of characters. bart simson Viejo. chucky doll viejol. a sweet a hello kitty viejo. Or how about an angry bird viejo.
Or….. a 5ft tall topless surffette-with-basketball-sized-boobs-viejo. (not sure who’s creepy fantasy that is…but i promise did see it, more than one actually).
This is the mini- mouse version….
Francisco’s family got a Capitan America viejo. I told them that I didn’t really appreciate their not so subtle message it seemed they were trying to send me….
But it turns out you cant just take your Viejo home and burn him. No, first you must strap him to the top of your car and drive him around the city all day. I guess to give him one last chance to see it before the end. Then you set him out in front of your house. Sometimes with empty bottles of beer.
We went semi-traditional and bought a sawdust generic old man.
Then finally comes the moment. If you’ve had a particularly bad year, you give him 3 patazos (big kicks) before lighting him on fire. I have now learned that the papermachine viejos are easy to light….but sawdust not so much. Our guy, Edguardo as I decided to name him, was looking like a horrible burn victim before we finally got the lighter fluid out and were able to get a good flame going.
And of course once you have a few boys out playing with fire, what should they have to do, but jump over the fire. So now that is part of the tradition.
Then after burning the old man/old year,what should be left but of course, his widow. So out come the vuedas….men who cross-dress like women in mini skirts, high heels and tights and go around begging /extorting alms. Extorting, as in they put a rope across the road and wont let cars pass until you give them some small change. Or in the case of Otavalo, they get even the pedestrians on the sidewalk….they realized that’s a larger market, I suppose. I have thought a lot about how this tradition could have possibly get started and asked a number of people, but never once got a very clear answer, so i leave you to ponder it yourself as well.
Finally, Ecuadorians aren’t just looking forward to the coming year with their new years resolutions, but they are taking a reflective tone with their “testamentos” or the last Will and testament (of the Viejo I suppose, now that he’s returned to dust?). Except its really about referencing funny events of the year, leaving people things that they might not really want…..
So, to my dear friend, Nathalie, I leave long bike rides in the freezing rain. To Sally, I leave kilos of acai…in the wrong shade of Noonday tomato. To Francisco and Freddy, I leave a roadmap. To Melanie and Cesar: lost, French Jimmy. To Kate and Connie: the broken fax machine. To my beloved brother, Josh, I leave the Ronald Reagan Memorial Library. And the electronic Christmas music cd. And 5,000 beanie babies we just cant seem to part with. And finally, to our lovely parents, I leave the crazy daughter you somehow raised with an insatiable wander lust juxtaposed with an impossible love for home.
happy old years!