Christmastime in Bolivia

Crossposted on Global Voices Online.

Take a deep breath. Watch your belongings. Say goodbye to personal space. If you want to partake in some holiday shopping at a place where you can find anything and everything, it would be best to heed that advice. Every year, the Feria Navideña in Cochabamba, Bolivia overwhelms the senses and invades every available open space near and around the large, local open-air market known as La Cancha. Normally, this market is chaos in itself throughout the year, but around the holiday season, an influx of informal vendors bring their wares to take advantage of the innate need for holiday purchasing. The market appears to multiply tenfold during the month of December, but that doesn’t keep the holiday shoppers away, as many brave the harsh conditions in hopes of finding bargains in one convenient location.

Many sellers set up tables with low hanging tarps, with Christmas lights, wreaths, plastic animals for manger scenes, and Christmas cards for sale. The variety is unsurpassed, as one stand may sell soccer balls, while the next stand over, the seller may be hawking light bulbs and extension cords. There is some semblance of order as the vendors set up orderly aisles for curious browsers to shuffle by. However, the width of these aisles is barely two people across. Once you get entire families that stop to look at the merchandise and some friendly price haggling, it leads to a frustrating congestion. Mix in satisfied customers carrying home large packages, or items such as motorized cars for the toddler, then it becomes even more packed. Those vendors unlucky enough to find their own stable stand are resigned to being wandering salesmen who sometimes venture in these tight spaces to look for interested buyers. These wandering salesmen and women often lug their goods in wheelbarrows which adds to the unruly mess. I even noticed one man who had a fine collection of hand saws for sale, which is not exactly the safest item to sell among the tightly packed crowd.

The municipality attempted to put more order to the fair by not allowing them to spill out on the street and limiting the spaces where stands could be set up. However, many vendors claimed their right to earn a living and set up shop wherever convenient, even if it added to the headache of traffic jams and irritated shoppers. Every year, the local government tries to maintain order, but every year the vendors seem to win.

In other parts of the city away from the hustle and bustle of the large marketplace, Christmas definitely is in the air. Lights are strewn all around the main plaza, 14 de septiembre. The city’s main avenue, la Avenida Ballivian, better known as El Prado, contains the largest concentration of Christmas decorations, including a surprisingly elegant tree constructed out of 2-liter bottles of Coca-Cola. There is also a fair share of gaudy decorations like an out of place plastic Papa Noel (Santa Claus) overlooking the Plaza Colon. Santa hats are also for sale by vendors hoping to capitalize on the festive mood created by these decorations.

Here on El Prado, there are no signs of separation of Church and State, as the Mayor’s Office proudly boasts the sponsorship of the large manger scene. The baby Jesus and shepherds are stored away for safe keeping during the day and assembled when night falls. The three wise men made an early appearance from its usual early January appointment.

The Christmas season also draws contrasts between the haves and have-nots. Every year around these particular dates, hundreds of poor campesinos, usually from the department of Potosí, descend on the large urban center hoping to find a bit of charity from generous city folk. On nearly every corner and especially concentrated around the main plaza, women and scores of children dressed in typical dress from that region, ask for coins from the passers-by. It was observed that many individuals gave loose change, but with the overabundance of beggars, it is merely impossible to give to every single one.

In the city, the most important part of the holiday takes place on Nochebuena, which is Christmas Eve. After attending Roman Catholic Mass, families gather to take part in a late night dinner. The fare varies from family to family, as some prepare turkey, chicken, pork or beef. As soon as midnight strikes, the opening of the presents is an annual tradition. The Christmas celebrated in rural and urban Bolivia varies greatly, as this perspective comes from one spent solely in the city.

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