Años Viejos: Torching the old year to toast the new one

“It’s usually a very collective activity,” said Salazar, 24,
who lives in Pasto, Colombia, about 50 miles northeast of the border with
Ecuador. Family members coordinate which old clothing they would want to use on
the año viejo (“old year” in Spanish); an uncle will bring an old pair of
pants, a cousin an old shirt, and maybe someone has a hat to top it off. It
often becomes something entire neighbourhoods do together, Salazar said.
Whenever he asks the family next door for extra sawdust to stuff the doll, they
happily oblige, he said.

“It’s not really about burning it,” Salazar said. “For us,
building it is almost as important as our family dinner on the 24th of
December,” he added, referring to the traditional celebration the night before

According to Odi Gonzales, a professor of Latin American and
Andean studies at New York University, the burning of años viejos started in
Ecuador, and like many traditions in Latin America today, it is a product of
mestizaje — the racial and cultural mixing of Spanish and Indigenous peoples.

“The concept of años viejos comes from European influence,”
Gonzales said, adding that unlike European cultures, which experience time with
a beginning and an end, Andean cultures conceive of time as “continuous.”

But rituals to expel epidemics or ailments are prehistoric
and Indigenous, Gonzales said.

María Belén Calvache, a specialist in politics and
traditions in Ecuador, said in an interview that “there are historical records
in Ecuador that show that Indigenous populations, specifically the people from
Otavalo, would burn a doll symbolising a feudal leader during the celebration
of the solstice in December, March and June.”

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She added, “They were burned as a symbol of regeneration.”

The first años viejos as we know them today were burned
along the Andean sierra in major Ecuadorian cities like Quito and Guayaquil in
the 19th century, historians explained. The burnings were the climax of a
10-day Catholic celebration marking the end of the year, running from Dec 28,
the Day of the Innocents, to Three Kings Day, on Jan 6.

During those days, people wore masks and costumes on the
streets. On Dec 31, large rag dolls representing drunken old men were carried
through the streets by masked people dressed in white to represent their
weeping widows, Calvache explained. Because the drunks did not leave wills, the
widows would roam about asking for money. At midnight, the rag doll would be
burned, “and a humorous testament where different things are left to the
mourners is read,” Calvache added. Those things were usually satirical omens or
wishes for prosperity.

“For a fundamentally working-class society, end-of-the-year
celebrations were an opportunity to forget about sorrows through parties,” said
Alfonso Ortiz Crespo, a historian and architect from Ecuador. “It was a time to
make fun of the other — not only civil authority, but also make fun of the
neighbour, the friend and the relative, or the political enemy.”

Today in Ecuador, años viejos are burned mostly by teenagers
and young adults, Calvache said. But for the last two years, the burning of
años viejos has been prohibited across the country to prevent large gatherings
amid the coronavirus pandemic.

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Today, it is more common to see papier-mâché años viejos
modelled after superheroes or comic book monsters than effigies made of rags,
but some parts of Ecuador and Colombia still keep to tradition.

In Pasto, every Dec 31, there is a parade of años viejos
made by the city’s artists. “During this parade, many artisans use años viejos
to pose a cultural and political critique of the country,” Salazar said. That usually
means parading around likenesses of politicians.

Former President Álvaro Uribe of Colombia, former President
Donald Trump of the United States and Hugo Chávez, the Venezuelan leader who
died in 2013, are some of the most common faces. Steve Harvey, the television
host, had a surge in popularity after he wrongly crowned Miss Colombia the
winner of the 2015 Miss Universe pageant.

Last year, there were many años viejos wearing masks and
holding hand sanitiser, a nod to the raging coronavirus pandemic, Salazar said.

The main reason the tradition continues, though, is because
of families.

Salazar remembers building años viejos with his grandfather
when he was little. “We used to fill them with fireworks,” he said, a practice
that is now illegal in Colombia. “The loudest año viejo meant that you were the
most macho in the neighbourhood.”

Nicolás Franco, a civil engineer from Bogotá, Colombia’s
capital, began making años viejos six years ago. He and his family would spend
Christmas in Pereira, in the coffee-growing region of Colombia. In Bogotá, “you
really don’t see años viejos,” he said. But when he travelled to Pereira, they
lined the streets.

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Franco, 60, really enjoyed the idea of burning away the bad
things of the year. “It’s like a cleansing,” he said.

Camila Pava of Cali, Colombia, who works in user experience,
says años viejos are a way to reset with her family. Around 11:30 pm on New
Year’s Eve, her entire family sits around and writes what they want to get rid
of. “It can be personal, like about love, or about the world, like COVID,”
Pava, 28, explained.

Everyone then tucks the notes in the hat, pants and shirt of
the año viejo, a small rag doll given by her aunt. As they light the año viejo,
after eating 12 grapes and making 12 wishes, she and her family talk to one
another about what they want to accomplish and change in the next year. To
Pava, it feels grounding and cathartic.

“I love believing in that little bit of magic,” she said.

© 2022 The New York Times Company

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