QUITO – In Saraguro, a city inhabited mainly by indigenous peoples and nestled in the Andes mountains of southern Ecuador, Christmas blends the universal message of the birth of Jesus with Indian traditions in a celebration that is all about solidarity and reciprocity.
The community here has largely resisted the entry of such Western traditions as the Christmas tree and Santa Claus, as well as the consumerism of gift exchanges between family members and friends, a popular custom in the rest of the country.
“People bring food and drinks to share with everyone,” and “a space of reciprocity is created between the communities” around the city, said Luis Macas, one of the leaders of Saraguro who until a few years ago was the head of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador.
The occasion begins with the winter solstice on Dec. 21 and celebrations continue till Dec. 28.
“Many sweets, made of sugarcane, are distributed among children,” as are also elaborately-prepared traditional dishes, especially those made from corn such as tamales as “this is the land of corn,” said Macas, adding that in his city, Christmas has a cosmic significance because it goes beyond man.
“It is about communing with nature, with the Andean spirituality,” while also including the child Jesus, he said.
The central figure during the celebrations in Saraguro is the “markantaita” or chief father, chosen from among the members of the community and in whose house remains the figure of Baby Jesus made by the city’s main church until Dec. 25.
The children, who represent 60 percent of Saraguro’s population, enjoy a lion’s share of the attention during this period.
Games, dances, parades and poetry recitals in the Quechuan language are organized for them, interspersed with Catholic prayers, said Macas.
The celebration has its roots in an ancient celebration from the times before the Spanish conquest in which people with an indigenous world view disguised as human beings and elements of nature participated.
“Tomorrow, on Christmas, there will be several tables,” with home-cooked food in the house of the markantaita so that “everyone can sit down to share the food and drinks they have brought to celebrate Christmas,” added Macas.
The simplicity and spirituality that marks the season’s celebrations in Saraguro contrasts with the frenzy of last-minute gift shopping and the preparation of Christmas dinner that grips the rest of Ecuador.
The streets, malls and bus stops are packed with people at this time and restaurants ready themselves to welcome diners.
Many people are expected to take advantage of the long weekend, from Thursday to Sunday, to visit relatives or go to resorts, especially those on the beaches.
Christmas trees decorated with lights are a common sight outside houses.
In El Panecillo, a small hill in central Quito, a giant nativity scene built by the city hall with metal pipes and adorned by more than 60,000 small colored lights makes for a striking sight.