Christmas trees, twinkling light displays, and red streamers were up. There was a main street lined with tents selling sausages or popcorn as well as horse-drawn carriages that clopped by.
It looked like a typical Christmas festival street scene — except it was February.
Every year, Quinamayó, a town of about 6,000 in southwestern Colombia, observes a tradition that dates back to the era of slavery and has persisted as a way to turn a history of oppression and suffering into a celebration of joy.
In the early 1800s, the town’s Afro-Colombian population was enslaved and forced to work through December, attending to slaveholders’ holiday festivities. So Christmas was celebrated 40 days after the traditional birth date of Jesus — the amount of time that the Virgin Mary is said to have rested after delivery, and right after the end of harvest season.
On a Saturday night in February, the festival’s main procession began with a group of women in traditional ruffled floral dresses, walking through the moonlit streets. They were soon joined by girls in grass skirts, representing Indigenous groups that Quinamayó’s Black residents consider as part of their shared history of slavery.
Then, three children dressed up as Joseph and Mary appeared. Small angels wore matching braids of white beads and guardian troops wore fake wooden rifles.
Three teenagers followed, with two girls in bright white suits and two girls in flamingo pink tulle hoop skirts. The doll that represented the baby Jesus was in their arms was held in their arms by a baby basket made of gold.
The ceremony “is in our blood, it is in our veins,” said Mirna Rodríguez, 60, the procession’s coordinator.
In 16th-century Colombia, the Spanish colonized Colombia and banned Indigenous and Afrodescendant religions. Roman Catholicism became the law of land.
“It was their culture, their history, their ancestry, and it was ripped away from them in the worst way,” Miguel Ibarra, a researcher doctoral in Afro-Latino History in Palmira, said that the event was a success.
Many of Colombia’s enslaved and Indigenous communities combined Western Christian culture with their own ancestral traditions. Or in the case of Quinamayó’s residents, they developed new customs.
While the Christmas-in-February tradition has been commemorated since it began nearly 200 years ago, the celebration has exploded in popularity over the past 20 years.
At this year’s event, thousands of people arrived by car, motorcycle and public bus to this town surrounded by sugarcane fields, where running water and electricity are spotty. A whole amusement park was built by truck.
Quinamayó is about an hour’s drive from Cali, Colombia’s third-largest city on the Pacific coast, and has no hotels, so guests stayed with friends or stayed out all night, partying into the next day after the main procession. Revelers sipped on fried pork and potatoes as they slept on Sunday morning. As salsa blared from the bars, some fell asleep at tables.
Music is an important part of the festival, with the echo of drums resounding far beyond the main stage at the opening ceremony on Friday night in the town’s central plaza.
“Through the rhythm of the drum we give an important message,” said Norman Viáfara, one of the festival’s organizers. “We tell the world, society in general, that we are ready and willing to also be able to reach the decision-making spaces.”
Due to the pandemic, the festival was cancelled the previous two years. Many of Quinamayó’s elder members, who were in charge of the festivities, died from Covid-19, said Hugo Lasso, vice president of the festival’s planning committee.
After the main procession finished, the town erupted into jubilation, the smell of gunpowder from sparklers hanging in the air as two men dressed in elaborate ox and mule costumes performed a mock fight — a homage to the characters in the Bible’s Nativity scene.
Women in traditional dresses danced the juga throughout the weekend. It is characterized by a shuffling movement, as dancers move in circular circles, accompanied or not by musicians. “jugueritos,” Playing the trombone or drums. Sometimes called fuga. “flee,” The dance represents chains and shackles.
“One identifies with those customs,” said Arbey Mina, a former director of the festival’s official jugueritos band. “In fact, that identity is not directly with slavery, but with what was done to show that one was free, that maybe the body was chained, but the soul had freedom.”
Mr. Mina’s festival, like many others, is about preserving that identity.
On Sunday, three teenage girls in the town competed in a pageant, wearing handmade dresses representing traditional aspects of Quinamayó’s culture.
The jugueritos accompanied the girls as they walked down the main street toward the stage. The time was right for questions after a juga dancing performance.
When the judges asked Mabel Mancilla, 14, how the town’s residents could safeguard their identity, she responded: “We must accept ourselves as we are. That means wearing the hair we were born with. We should not be ashamed of being who we are. Being Black is a privilege.”
The crowd cheered immediately: “That’s the one! That’s the one!”
Mabel was declared winner just minutes later.
“She will be in charge of safeguarding our tradition for a year,” said a community leader, Vanessa Peña.
Just as Mabel was about ready to give a speech, a drizzle became rain and wind knocked out the power.
“We’re cold, play the juga,” Some revelers yelled. As the audience danced in the rain, the jugueritos agreed.
Nothing, not even a hurricane, was going to stop Christmas from February.
Jaír Coll contributed reporting.