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December 30, 2020

A New Year’s tradition in Ecuador—El Año Viejo—& why it is relevant this Covid-19 year.

El Año Viejo: The Old Year.

A short tale about the end of the year celebrations and traditions in my native Ecuador.

“Yo no olvido al Año Viejo porque me ha dejado cosas muy buenas…Me dejo una chiva, una burra negra, una yegua blanca y una buena suegra…”

…translated to…

I won’t forget the old year because it left me good things…it left me a female goat, a black donkey, a white female horse, and a good mother-in-law.”

so goes the start of the song “Año Viejo,” which is one of my favourite end-of-the-year songs. It makes me happy every time I hear it, and it puts me directly in a dancing mood—it is so lively! Although it is a bit of a silly song, and it might not be as appropriate this year (many of us want to forget much of this year) it still brings such great memories of our end-of-the-year celebrations in Ecuador, and of many of the traditions that we have had in our family in receiving the New Year.  Burning el “Año Viejo,” which I will tell you more about here, is one of those traditions that we always kept as kids—and unfortunately not one of those traditions that can be transported to my home in Sweden (or anywhere else for that matter!).

But as we end this year, I feel it in my gut that I need to burn el “Año Viejo” this year.

The tradition of burning el Año Viejo is one of those celebrations that is followed by almost every household in Ecuador.  The preparations usually start a few days, or even weeks before, as there is a lot of work involved even in just selecting the theme.

The “Año Viejo” is usually made into a dummy or doll the size of an adult, which is filled with wood chips. Once it is filled, it gets all dressed up and dolled up as the chosen character. Usually the themes follow a politician or famous character who has made news throughout the year. Anything associated with major scandals, or something that symbolizes some major thing or event that has transcended throughout the year is a must. Once the dolls are ready, there is a need to create a platform for them to be displayed on, and these are usually placed outside of people’s houses by the side of the streets.

As a kid I really loved prepping these dolls, getting clothes, painting their faces, making masks for them, and building the platforms. It was so much fun to get together with my siblings and cousins and friends to do this—I have memories of doing this even into my late 20s.

Once the dolls are ready and are on display, on the 31st of January during the early afternoon and sometimes earlier, men go onto the streets dressed up as “widows” of the “Año Viejo.” Yes, grown men get all dolled up, dressed up in women’s black dresses, high heel shoes, and full outfits which include wigs, fake eye lashes, makeup, jewelery. The “widows” need to raise money for burying the Viejo, so they are out on the streets stopping cars and passerbyers to collect donations for the procedures. As this is going on all over the country, the whole event is very festive.

I have memories even from a young age with my dad taking us and a bunch of other kids from the neighbourhood out for a ride in his white “Ranchera” sporty pick-up. We all climbed up in the back of truck and went for a joy ride around the city. I cannot imagine anything like that today, but we loved it, and I just remember laughing and having the time of our lives in such an insanely dangerous situation. Those were other times, and in a place where all the safety that we live with today arrived much later.  We would drive around giving money to the silly widows and looking at the displays.  After this tour we would return home and we would go out ourselves and join our widows and display. I remember some of my uncles and my cousins dressing up and laughing hysterically as they always made sure to look extremely slutty with tons of make-up, and wearing the shortest skirts possible. I have this memory of my favourite cousin’s husband who ran around in a black dress and had some sort of fur coat on with the head of an animal that looked like a fox (I think). I have no idea where in the world they got ahold of that coat, and to this day I wonder what that was and where it came from. The scenes of these grown men dressed like that and stopping cars and pretending they were crying, whining and collecting money was hysterically funny. Mind that there is a lot of drinking during the whole day, and I am sure this was necessary in order to carry out those scandalous scenes that also included a lot of loud Cumbia music and dancing. For some reason I don’t ever remember my father dressing up as a widow, but maybe he did and I just did not recognize him. Nevertheless, I do remember him always welcoming people to our house during these festivities, and that many people were around the whole day and night, and most of them came back the day after for “el calentadito” which translates to “the warm left-over food from dinner.”

It was really fun to be outside and to feel the anticipation of the end of the year, and after a few hours of these part of the rituals, we would go inside for dinner and to wait for midnight.

My mom, who is an amazing cook, always prepared dinner. Usually a delicious turkey and a bunch of delicious salads were on the menu. After dinner, we would continue in the celebration mode, listening and dancing to music such as my favourite song (that I already told you about at the start).

At about an hour before midnight we would put on the radio and start to listen to an incredibly dramatic countdown of the end of the year which was, and probably still is, transmitted by “Radio Tarqui” of Ecuador. The man who counted down the minutes would scream out each minute. He sounded as if he was crying outloud in pain as midnight approached. As a kid I found this voice terrifying, and just thinking about it brings back some of those traumatizing scary feelings!

In the middle of the music and the dramatic countdown, a few other things were going on during that final hour including:

  • Making sure the grapes were ready to eat (one must eat 12 grapes at midnight to make sure one has good luck and fortune every month of the year);
  • making sure that one or a few suitcases were ready by the door (if you want to travel throughout the year, you have to take a suitcase at midnight and run around the block with it)—this is a practice still done by my sisters and nephews who live in the USA;
  • and of course we had to have champagne ready to drink (and aside from drinking, my mom always poured champagne on our heads for good luck and blessings, a practice that I also still follow).
  • In addition, adults were sitting around writing and reading out funny “testaments of the year,” and women were making sure that they were wearing the proper underwear (yellow for good luck and fortune or red for love or romance. Not to give out too much information, but this ritual is something that all of my sisters and close women friends still do, and I must say that it is really difficult to find yellow underwear where I live today!).
  • All of these rituals were happening somehow in parallel, and at the core of these celebrations we would run outside and light the “Año Viejo” on fire. I remember all the adults always yelling at us to be careful—and with good reason as the procedure is that once the “Año Viejo” is burning, then one has to jump over it three times—for good luck, for love, and for overall prosperity in the New Year.

After all the jumping, the running, and the eating, the parties and dancing to receive the new year continue well into early hours of the morning, and I remember how family and friends came and went.

Our house was truly “una casa de puertas abiertas”—an open door house. I remember one year, when I was still in high school, I must have been around 17, that I went out after the midnight celebrations and came back home after a few hours, and no one had noticed that I had left. When I arrived back I was nervous that I would get int trouble for going out, but more people had arrived at our house and no one had noticed that I was out. Or maybe they did and I just thought I got away somehow. How strange it would be to do something like this today, and I wonder if anyone still has this type of open-door drop-in style, which is in unheard of in my current circles.

This tradition can be dangerous and so one can relate and understand why it is not a tradition that can be easily transferred to other countries, and least not to Sweden where I live. But with so many devastating events that have happened this year (and even though I am tremendously thankful for so much in my life), I have a need for this ceremonial tradition, this year.

The C-19 virus has been devastating for so many people, in every country, and our lives have changed dramatically—although there is much to say about this, I don’t want to focus on these things here.  Instead I want to emphasize the fact that we are truly blessed to live in this beautiful planet, a planet that we need to protect and cherish in any way we can, and that we are such precious creatures, who need to take care of each other. How privileged many of us are that we have people who we can call our family, whether blood-related or not, as well as amazing friends near and far.

As I write this, I want to express my gratitude to the medical staff working nonstop during this pandemic, the doctors, nurses, cleaners, teachers, volunteers, people who work in services, those who drive the trucks, buses, trains, postal workers, the supermarket workers, the cleaners, politicians, religious leaders, and all those people who make things function and who have continued to work diligently to save lives and to make sure that our lives continue to flow.

Like never before, I think we have come to realize how fortunate we are to have internet communication, and to be able to keep in touch in the midst of the lockdowns. It has been amazing to be able to have live-video meetings and family gatherings, and I am grateful for being in touch with many of my family members with whom I had not spoken for years. But more than anything, I really miss our social IRL (In Real Life) interactions and really just seeing people, gatherings, giving hugs, kisses on the cheeks, and the possibility to sneeze out loud without being looked at as if one is committing a crime.

I am also incredibly moved by the pace of science that we have seen this year. Yesterday, the first person in Sweden to receive a vaccine was a woman of 94 years of age, not the Prime Minister nor the politicians, but a woman from a small town in the country side of Sweden. I found this incredibly touching, and I heard her in an interview say in a serene and calm way that she felt no pain as the vaccine was administered. I nearly got tears listening to this, and thinking about how amazing it is that so many scientists have come together to develop this vaccine. Perhaps it could have been done faster, better, cheaper, I don’t know, but the fact is that there is a vaccine now for this virus, and I find this tremendously impressive. This fills me with much hope. I realize that unfortunately our world most likely will have to face other pandemics, let’s really hope that this does not happen, but in the case that it so, let’s hope that we can be prepared to deal with any future crisis with humanity, and that we continue to remember how fragile we are and how we need each other.

I am sure that we will learn from the experiences that we have gone through this year, and my wish is that we all try and take care of each other and our beautiful planet as much as we can in 2021 and beyond.

So, to end this year, my plan is to do a mini-scale of this tradition in a covid-safe manner, and to burn the “Año Viejo” and jump over it safely with some amazing friends we have in Stockholm. I have many dreams for 2021 and for the future, and one of those dreams that I hope comes true one day soon is to celebrate the end of the year with my precious sons, my loving husband, family and any friends that want to join us in Quito.

I will make sure to have a full celebration there, all the guys will have to dress up in the finest black dresses they can fit into, high-heels and in full make up. It will be a treat to see this, and we will of course dance to

“El Año Viejo—Me dejo una chiva, una burra negra, una yegua blanca y una buena suegra…”

“it left me a female goat, a black donkey, a white female horse, and a good mother in law”…  

And by the way, I have no idea what these lyrics symbolize.

With Love for my precious sons and all of their precious cousins—

Mamma Ana / Tia Ani

Rådmansö, 29 December 2020.


Pictures taken January, 1 1998 burning the “Año Viejo” outside of our house. In photo: my niece, nephew, mom, sisters, brother in-law, and a friend from the USA who I had not seen for ages and who I happened to casually run into at the airport upon my own arrival in Quito on that trip. He was of course invited to join.

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