Años Viejos: Torching the Old Year to Toast the New One

Every December, Jaime Ivan Salazar and his family, like many in Colombia, Ecuador and other parts of Latin America, construct an “año viejo”: a human-size doll stuffed with rags, newspaper or wood scraps and styled with old clothes that is burned on New Year’s Eve to symbolically cast off the old year and bring in the new.

“It’s usually a very collective activity,” said Mr. 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 neighborhoods do together, Mr. Salazar said. Wheneverhe asks the family next door for extra sawdust to stuff the doll, they happily oblige, he said.

“It’s not really about burning it,” Mr. 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 Christmas.

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,” Professor 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, Professor 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 symbolizing a feudal leader during the celebration of the solstice in December, March and June.”

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 Ecuadorean 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, Ms. Calvache explained. Because the drunks didn’t 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,” Ms. 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 neighbor, the friend and the relative, or the political enemy.”

Today in Ecuador, años viejos are burned mostly by teenagers and young adults, Ms. 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.

Today, it’s more common to see papier-mâché años viejos modeled 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’s 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,” Mr. Salazar said. That usually means parading around likenesses of politicians.

Former President Álvaro Uribe of Colombia, former President Donald J. 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 sanitizer, a nod to the raging coronavirus pandemic, Mr. Salazar said.

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

Mr. 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 neighborhood.”

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 traveled to Pereira, they lined the streets.

Nicolás Franco and his wife, Marcela, with an año viejo made in 2020.Credit…Franco family

Mr. 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 p.m. 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,” Ms. 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 Ms. Pava, it feels grounding and cathartic.

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

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