Holidays are about tradition. What happens when everything starts to change?
Some Christmas traditions are pretty standard in mainstream American culture: put up the tree, string up the lights. Hide the Elf on the Shelf, visit grandma, bake the cookies.
Then there's the one my Colombian family does every year: the Novena de Aguinaldos.
A novena is a Catholic practice, where you pray for nine days straight, and this novena counts down the nine days before Christmas. Most Americans have never heard of it, but in Colombia, it's a big deal.
A friar wrote the novena verses in the 1700s, and as versions were printed and circulated, it became a popular Christmas tradition in the majority Catholic country. It's also celebrated in parts of Ecuador and Venezuela.
Like all good traditions, especially around the holidays, this tradition is about community and coming together with friends and family. My family is not religious, and we immigrated from Colombia when I was just two months old, but every year, we still gather with a group of Colombian friends for as many of the nine nights as we can. Lately, though, our gatherings have felt a little different.
There's three parts to the Novena de Aguinaldos: the first is the reading. We pass around a prayer book and each kid takes a turn. There are standard prayers for every day. And as the week goes on, a new prayer tells another part of the story.
Next comes the gozos, which literally translates as "The Joys." That's where the music comes in, and everyone gets an instrument. Grab a maraca, a drum, a tin can — whatever you can use to make noise, you better make it.
And then, when all the praying and archaic Spanish is out of the way, come the villancicos — Spanish Christmas carols. Very few of us know all the lyrics and no one is ever in tune.
Afterwards there's food: empanadas, buñuelos, pan de yuca and chocoflan. If it's a weekend, the music comes on, and there's dancing late into the night.
As a kid, those late nights would often turn into sleepovers, where we'd stay awake and trade ghost stories of La Llorona and The Blair Witch Project, or share gossip from our different schools. So Novenas became the backdrop to growing up — the lull between praying and eating was where we crammed for SATs and whispered about crushes and friend drama.
I've lived my whole life in the U.S. There's not a lot of Colombian culture that we still hang onto, and for the most part that's okay. Why do we still carry out the tradition of celebrating the novenas, then?
When I asked my parents the other day, the answer was simple: a sense of belonging. Immigrants don't belong anywhere — not where you are, nor where you're from. So my parents helped create a space where we did. Even if the novenas were nothing like what we might've celebrated if we'd stayed in Colombia, the novenas became the heart of our community.
But our novenas are starting to feel a little more fragile. Though our Spanish has gotten better, it's getting harder and harder for everyone to get together each year.
We celebrated over Zoom during the first year of the pandemic. The audio delays threw our sometimes mismatched singing completely out of sync. But as we get back to "normal," life gets busier in all the other normal ways. Last year, I was studying abroad in Italy and couldn't make it to any gathering. My brother went off to college and had exams late into December; my sister just moved to a new city. Parents have taken up jobs in different countries. The logistics of getting together have become a little more complicated than just driving 15 minutes away.
More and more, our American friends started to join more often. The kids, now all grown-ups, get to help new little ones stumble through the Spanish. We no longer confine ourselves to the basement. Sometimes we mix up the music, phasing out Joe Arroyo for Bad Bunny and teaching our parents the YMCA. We dance with a little more enthusiasm and hug each other a little tighter at the end of each night.
No culture or community is immune to the erosion of time. Eventually, I know we'll pay the price of assimilation. The novena is already evidence of that in so many ways — it's a tradition that has become more cherished because we left; its practice is more significant because I might not be able to pass it on to my own children one day.
Maybe by writing this, I'm making peace with the fact that this tradition won't last forever. My parents had always wanted the novena to make us feel like we belonged somewhere, and after all these years, it finally did exactly that. It gave us the gift of community, something we can always turn to, even in the months where there are no presents and no Christmas trees.
So maybe this is also a brave attempt at permanence: to capture and document these nights of singing and dancing before they evaporate into memory. If you Google the "Novena de Aguinaldos" on the English side of the Internet, there's very little evidence it exists, let alone in our own diasporic community in the U.S. This article might be the only thing that comes up.
Jacob Conrad edited the audio version of this story. Majd Al-Waheidi edited the digital story. contributed to this story
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