New Year’s a la Ecuador
In Ecuador, “New Year’s Eve” is actually called “the Old Year”. It is celebrated on December 31 and has a protagonist: El Viejo, or the Old Man. The Old Man is a human-sized “rag” doll, filled with sawdust and dressed in clothes the family wants to get rid of… the sawdust helps it burn away easily as the clock hits midnight. Some kick or beat the doll before it is lit and in many parts of the country, they jump over it while in flames to ensure that all bad luck (and evil eyes) disappear as of that moment, in hopes for a more prosperous year to come.
Usually, the mask of a character that represents the year that passed is placed on the effigy, a papier-maché mask that usually depicts an athlete or popular culture figure that made the news during the year: celebrities, actors, cartoon characters, perhaps even a politician that would have deserved to go up in flames… (although the Viejo does not necessarily have to be represented by an unpopular figure).
In Guayaquil, in any case, it is difficult to jump over a burning Viejo at midnight, because Viejos are usually filled with firecrackers and burned with gasoline. Every single family throughout the city prepares their own Viejo, and some may have two or three… at midnight, it feels like you’ve suddenly plunged into a world war. As day breaks and the early rays of sunlight shine onto the streets, people who return from their long nights of celebration can still smell the powder in the air and corpse-like bundles of ash lie on the ground. The custom of Viejo-making, in fact, has reached unexpected levels in this city and certain neighborhoods have now become famous for their larger-than-life “viejos”. They can be gigantic. Taller than the surrounding buildings. Like veritable Godzillas (and to fit, many actually depict popular animé or cartoon characters). They are set on fire several days after New Year’s, under the watchful gaze of the local fire department. If you are in Guayaquil this holiday, don’t miss visiting them in the southern quarters of the city. Many local families stroll along the streets to witness these unique examples of an ephemeral urban art that certainly impresses all ages alike.
Apart from the Viejo, men dress as widowed women (especially in the Andes) who throw compliments to passing cars, urging the drivers to stop and offer some change for the year to come.
After all, one has to hope that the year brings the best possible outcome and for that some ask for money in drag, others make the best “Viejo” they can or get ready to perform a series of cabbalistic rituals at the stroke of midnight is ensure good luck, including jumping on your right foot for a minute (so as not to start the year on your left foot) or counting the money in your wallet (you must make sure you have something inside the wallet, of course, because if there’s no money, that’s what’s in store for the following year).
Undoubtedly, Ecuadorian houses can quickly turn into mad houses… Mothers will be throwing lentils on the floor for prosperity and uncles will be filling their mouths with grapes so that their wishes are fulfilled; aunts will be taking their suitcases for a walk around the block to travel as much as possible and fathers will be getting their wife’s rings from the jewelry box to drop in the champagne glass, one of the (unproven) most efficient ways to make sure money doesn’t run out.
In Ecuador, New Year’s is one of the most joyous festivities, where everyone embraces their loved ones and above all laughs at life and the years that pass, by the heat of the burning “old man” (and grandpa’s old tie that no one will ever be wearing again).