Sometimes it helps to close the door on the past so that we can start fresh and fully immerse ourselves in the future. Or at least that’s the idea behind the New Years Eve (NYE) tradition in Ecuador (and many other Latin American countries).
Welcoming the new year is done by first burning the “año viejo” or old year – a symbol of burning away all the bad that happened in the previous year, and also scaring away the bad so it won’t come in the new year.
“Año viejo” is often represented by life-size dolls or dummies, often dressed in old clothes or adorned with symbols of bad things from the year before.
In some cases, “año viejo” is dressed as people, political figures, or even family members, in an attempt to burn the bad they caused the previous year.
It is a moment to combine art and self expression with hopes for better future. Some people go to great lengths and create entire displays. For example, this one depicts the 12-day strikes (“huelgas”) and protests that occurred in Ecuador in October of 2019, spurred by the government’s announcement that they would eliminate fuel subsidies.
In most cases, people create their own smaller, personal dolls or creations with items of personal significance and burn them bonfire-style in the street outside their house just before midnight. Sometimes a creative person will create a humorous testament, recounting things that happened to their friends or family members before lighting “año viejo” on fire.
From the “año viejo” tradition, grew the “viuda” (widow) tradition, which explained why I saw a bunch of guys dressed in drag when I crossed the border into Ecuador.
As a humorous take on the tradition, some men dress as widows mourning the loss of their husband/boyfriend (themselves) who would be “burned” as part of the “año viejo” tradition.* They dress in drag and often ask for coins in the streets, usually while goofing off and having a good time.
Walking through the street after midnight, all the neighbors had fires smoldering in the streets, many playing music and celebrating with family members. I joined a couple of people dancing outside and made some new friends – an extended family that owned the restaurant where they were dancing, and lived in the same building.
I am happy to have started my new year off dancing and meeting new people, leaving behind fears, inhibitions, and self-consciousness smoldering in the past.
*If you didn’t follow the “viuda” tradition it’s because it is kind of confusing and takes some imagination. The men are assuming their partner will burn a figure of them (because they were the cause of problems during the previous year), so the men, pretending that they are actually dead from this symbolic burning and have therefore left their partners widowed, then dress as their partners and beg for coins in the streets.
**One source said the “año viejo” tradition came from the colonial times when many people died from yellow fever and their clothes would be burned at the end of the year for sanitary and spiritual purposes, to ward off the disease.