Christmas with the Dominican Mission in Tarija
I am not sure what we as a small Dominican community will be doing for Christmas in Bolivia this year. It could be one of many things – we might even be invited to join a local family on Christmas day. In Tarija and all of Bolivia the old traditions around Christmas are strong and very active. The holiday lasts from Christmas day until February when families prepare and dress the child Jesus in white clothes, prepare their cribs and decorate their home altars with silk and other colourful cloths. They also add products from the earth such as grasses, wheat and barley, flowers, vegetables and fruits of the season.
The statue of Jesus is carried to the local church to “listen to mass” usually accompanied on the way by a group of children dancing in front of the ‘Christ Child’ while they play Christmas melodies on flutes. Some wealthy families even hire bands to accompany the family procession.
Churches, devout families, neighborhoods in its squares, prepare the ‘la trenzada’ a long stick of three or four meters from which hang ribbons of colours woven especially for this occasion, they are considered here to be “sacred”. This is probably one of the oldest traditions of Tarija’s worship. This and the God child, and has maintained its spiritual richness here along with a spontaneous child dance ritual. After Mass on Christmas day they go outside to entertain the children with milk, chocolate and sweet cookies and they give out fruit cakes and some toys.
On the eve of Christmas, after attending midnight mass, families share dinner at twelve midnight with a traditional meal called la ‘picana’ which consists of a very special soup cooked with three kinds of meat: chicken, beef and pork, serving this with potatoes, cheese, and corn.
On January 6 in the countryside community members celebrate the ‘day of the oxen’ adorning their animals with flowers in their ears, they paint the backs of the oxen red and take the day off. A double ration of food is also given to the poor.
The Christmas religious tradition in Tarija, is very rich in rituals and symbols that express a very deep faith, as well as preserving much of the ancient and Christian tradition. While they have imported some western ideas – decorations and Christmas trees – on the whole the ancient traditional spirit of ritual and symbol is very much alive.
Sr. Susie O’Rawe OP