Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - March 11, 2004


The wearin' o' the green and other customs

I'm only a wee bit Irish, thanks to my great-great-great grandfather Robert Shannon, but I try to remember to wear green on March 17. I also buy a shamrock plant, decorate our dining table with a green tablecloth, and sometimes make corned beef and cabbage to mark the day.

Mardi Gras - Fat Tuesday - is another holiday I enjoy participating in. I haven't been to New Orleans or Rio de Janeiro during Mardi Gras, but it's fun to commemorate the day by wearing strands of purple, yellow and green beads. For several years now, a Louisiana-born colleague graciously has invited us to partake of spicy gumbo and King Cake drizzled with purple, yellow and green icing.

My sister Gaila and her family celebrate Mardi Gras or "Carnaval" in Bolivia. They have a four-day weekend during which the main activities are dancing and throwing water balloons at each other. A major event is a three-day period during which different folkloric groups dress in elaborate costumes with masks and dance through the streets of Oruro.

Gaila is lucky because she celebrates both the traditional U.S. holidays and those of her adopted Bolivia. So in addition to those special days we grew up observing such as Thanksgiving and Independence Day, she joins the fun of ones such as Alasita, where people pay homage to the household god Ekeko.

During the Alasita fair at the end of January, people buy miniatures of things they hope to secure in the following year. The word Alasita is an Aymara Indian word that means "buy from me." Vendors sell small houses, tiny vehicles, little bags of flour, and stacks of Monopoly-like money to those who hope the real things they symbolize will be in their future. The markets also have small figures of Ekeko, a rotund, jolly-looking fellow. The Ekekos come in all sizes and usually carry buckets, umbrellas, pots and pans, rope, hats, bags of food and money - in other words, items that might come in handy at some point during the coming year.

On other, more-universal holidays such as Christmas and New Year's, Gaila and her family combine traditions from both countries. We experienced that a bit when we were in Bolivia in December and January.

Gaila's husband's extended family were with us on Christmas Eve. The evening was mostly about "adorando a Jesus" - adoring Jesus. A figure of the Christ child was placed in the family's nativity and we danced in the style of the people who live in the high plains region.

While we ate turkey on Christmas Day, we ate pork on New Year's. Gaila's sisters-in-law explained that pork is a traditional New Year's day food for two reasons. One is because it is considered a symbol of "plenty." The second stems from the way pigs move dirt forward with their snouts rather than scratching it backward as chickens and turkeys do when looking for food. So a pig is thought to be looking forward to the future rather than backward to the past.

People also decorate their homes with red, yellow and green candles and flowers for the New Year holiday, the same colors as the horizontal bars of the Bolivian flag. The country's national flower, the kantuta, also has those same colors. Bolivians associate red with love, yellow with wealth and green with health. I was told that many women wear red panties on New Year's Eve in the hopes that they'll find love in the upcoming year.

Another New Years' custom is to eat 12 grapes at the stroke of midnight - and to make a wish for each of the 12 months of the year.

Wearing green on St. Pat's Day, eating grapes and making wishes on New Year's Eve, displaying certain colors and buying items in miniature probably haven't changed anyone's luck - at least not directly. But those things may bring a smile or create good thoughts about the future and in so doing, change a person's outlook. And a change in attitude can alter a person's life.

“Adorando a Jesús” - adoring Baby Jesus - is a Bolivian Christmas custom.
In the center, Larisa, left, and Katie dance in front of the nativity,
Christmas Eve 2003. At midnight, the baby is placed in the creche.

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