El Año Viejo (Ecuador)

In Ecuador, la fiesta de Año Viejo (literally, “the old year festival”) is a long-standing tradition that symbolically incinerates the regrets, failures and anger of the past year to usher in the resolutions, hopes and expectations for the new year.  On the 31st of December, men fill the streets dressed as women during the day, and at night, effigies are ritually burned to ashes.

When living in her hometown of Ibarra (50 miles outside Quito, the capital), my informant celebrated this tradition every year with her friends and family.  As she explains the tradition, she smiles and laughs, recalling the silliness of the festivities.  She recalls how young men, wearing women’s clothes and makeup, block the city streets and demand small payments of money from passersby.  Only then can you pass and go on your way.  She explains that the men collect money to pay for alcohol, “para emborrarcharse” (to get drunk) later that night.

However, about five days earlier, preparations for the celebration begin with crafting life-sized dolls, or los años viejos, made of clothes and paper.  The effigy might represent a disliked celebrity or political figure, or even a representation of past mistakes or unachieved goals.  Sometimes a handwritten note is attached to the doll that explains why it must be burned.  My informant says that effigies are still made of Abdalá “El Loco” Bucaram, a corrupt president who served during the 1990s and was later overthrown for stealing money.  Yet, she also explains that nowadays, the años viejos can take the form of popular culture figures like SpongeBob Squarepants or Marvel comic superheroes.

Again, she laughs as she recalls her uncle’s custom.  Every year, her uncle makes an año viejo of himself and attaches a note that sounds like a last will and testament.  Instead of a somber undertone, he leaves funny and sarcastic notes to his family members.  For example, one year he wrote….

As the clock nears midnight, people set fire to their años viejos outside their houses, in the streets or even on the beach.  To give it even more New Year’s flare, firecrackers are often thrown into the fire.  My informant says that this is one of her favorite holidays, but since she has moved to the U.S., the tradition of años viejos has slightly changed.  Instead of setting fire to the año viejo, she and her family ceremonially throw the effigy in the trash.

When analyzing the celebration of Año Viejo, the liminality of New Year’s Eve instigates a transformation of identities and superstition.  Because December 31st brings the past year to a close, but is not quite a new year, this liminal phase inverts social roles and men behave uncharacteristically by dressing up and acting like women.  Yet, the años viejos can be perceived as a form of superstition or imitative magic.  They symbolize past mistakes or the character of disliked public figures, and the ritual burning of the effigies signifies their eradication, to ensure they don’t return in the new year.  The tradition is also superstitious because it is an active performance that attempts to produce good luck and a “clean slate.”

The types of años viejos that are crafted today illustrate the history and evolution of the holiday.  The history of Años Viejo is unclear, but my informant says that it may have been started because of a yellow fever epidemic that affected the country years ago and many bodies were burned as a result.  Similar to how yellow fever was rid from the country through pyres, the años viejos represent misfortunes or undesired characteristics and are also erased in the flames of a fire.  The yellow fever influence may be the reason why many años viejos take the form of a human.   Furthermore, while años viejos of disliked politicians are still used, the introduction of creating popular culture characters may indicate a change in the political environment of Ecuador.  My informant told me that the president in office today is well liked and the Ecuadorian government is no longer corrupt.  Therefore, años viejos appear to adapt to contemporary issues, trends and most of all, humor.  “Ecuador is a very relaxed country” and locals appear to reflect the stress-free atmosphere through the use of humor in Año Viejo celebrations.

So let’s set the Año Viejo ablaze and welcome the new!