Healing, explosives and a Colombian New Year’s Tradition
‘El año viejo” was a tradition I grew up with in Colombia. A human-size rag doll built out of pantyhoses and aserrín or sawdust. My dad ran a wood shop from where he built people’s furniture, and he always had tons of asserin. This was the only time of the year he actually had a use for. For the pantyhoses, we counted on my mom.
El año viejo doll was stuffed with little sticks of dynamite, and at midnight on New Year’s, my dad would drench it with aguardiente and light it up.
Aguardiente, or ‘fiery water,’ is Colombia’s default national hard liquor. A 40% alcohol rum made out of caña de az’carú or cane sugar. It tastes like anise. ‘Burning anise’ would be a better name, and it is a good indicator of what your throat goes through.
The last time my parents did it was the last New Year’s Eve they were together before they divorced.
That year, my cousin visited us from San Ramon, in the San Francisco Bay area, and he was amazed by the ritual of ‘el año viejo.”
Thirty years later, he still talks about it, and we both lament that even though we grew up with fireworks in Colombia, now they are illegal.
I remember being outside that night when the dynamite exploded. They were called ‘matasuegras’ or mother-in-law killers. I was probably hiding behind my mom’s skirt. There are also a few other things I remember, but not many; I was not nine yet. I remember the red Marlboro box my parents used to have around the house.
I also remember the whiskey, la ‘carne en posta,’ and the little cocktail sausages in reduced Coca-Cola sauce.
All the vices, the food, the alcohol, the cigarettes, the dynamite, to tell the old year, que no vuelvas nunca, año de mierda! or “Don’t you ever come back, you shit year!”
It is hard to understand now why we used alcohol or drugs when we could just easily tap into the inexhaustible well of chantaje emocional, or “emotional blackmailing”, so popular among Colombian families.
What is our fascination with fireworks and explosives? Has it always been there since the moment men first discovered fire?
I was no different and, at times, worried that I was a pyro, even though I never had any desire to burn anyone’s house. I remember balling up cotton and dunking it in alcohol and then lighting it up and throwing it around with my childhood friend Diego.
And then I remember the county fairs that would be set up in the big parking lots closer to December. Rows and rows of vendors selling their specific brand of fireworks. They had it all, sparklers, volcanos, tanks, whistlers, cebollitas, and, of course, matasuegras — in all sizes, depending on how big of a pain in the ass your mother-in-law was.
Thankfully, I never met anyone burnt by it. We all were taught a healthy amount of respect and fear for fire and fireworks. As soon as you see the thread light up, you run.
Now, illegal, I can think of the times I enjoyed the fireworks and the rituals and celebrations around them.
The ads about all the burnt victims due to fireworks would play more often on the TV closer to December. The celebrations typically started with “Dia de las Velitas,” on December 7th, when the houses would set up candles at their doorstep to lighten up the way for the Virgin to find her way somewhere.
I was never told.
All I knew was that it was the beginning of the Christmas season in Colombia.
I did know of my great-grandma’s accident.
My mom visited them in San Salvador, and at six, she too was used to fireworks for Christmas, so she begged her grandmother to get some.
My great-grandma finally gave in, and somehow, the fireworks got stuck to her hand until they blew three of her fingers.
That story makes me cry with laughter. Even as I write it down, I still laugh. Oh, don’t be like that, don’t be upset for my great-grandma, it’s fine, she is fine, she is dead.
I love that story because it makes me feel connected to my family, who has a terribly twisted sense of humor. My wife hates it and has asked me to discontinue it from my repertoire; not many people tell this story to laugh.
But to me, it is story gold.
It’s worth it, even if it is just to see people’s reactions; it also helps me identify the people who, like me, can recognize the faintest hint of absurdity and irony even in the worst of tragedies.
Maybe we like explosives because they are easy.
It is easy to stuff all of our pains, regrets, and setbacks into a pantyhose and fill it up with dynamite that will blow them into even smaller pieces and turn them into ashes.
It is hard to appreciate the things that hurt us. It is harder to appreciate the sawdust, la viruta, el aserrín, or el aserrán.
But we could.
See it for what it did.
It protected the piece underneath and then allowed the essence to not be damaged.
Instead of trying to drive it out of our memory with violence, with explosions, we can see our pain with gentleness, kindness, and compassion, a piece to be shed peacefully and then move on just like all communities eventually end up moving away from fireworks.