Burning the Año Viejo and Make Space for the New: Latin American’s New Years’ Ritual

A few days before the end of the year is when many people in Latin America have gone from rummaging through their wardrobes in search of old clothes to dress their año viejo to deciding what is it they’re burning with it. As superstitious as Latin American cultures are, something that colonisation didn’t flush away, the año viejo is a real-life size doll that is burnt on New Years’ Eve with the intention of discarding bad juju and making space for new, positive energy.

The effigy, in other words, represents the old and the beginning of the new, of letting the past behind and preparing for the future. And so the burning of the effigies—filled with newspaper, cardboard and in some cases fireworks—is a cleansing ritual to welcome in the new year. New year, new energy. Being the chaos of the flames, dazing fireworks and smoke the step into a clear bubble of resolutions we will all forget by March. 

The legend tells that this practice started in the nineteenth century in Ecuador when the burning of effigies was a catholic celebration that lasted 10 days. On the 31st, men went on the street wearing white, imitating mourning widows and carrying effigies of drunk, old men. Men didn’t leave testaments at the time, and widows were left to wander the streets asking for money. Likewise, people wandered the streets on the 31st asking for money to buy the materials for the effigy, mourning over the year that’s about to burn away. But over the decades the practice has taken a different meaning, farther from catholicism and closer to spiritual beginnings and the joy of the activity itself. 

On many occasions, effigies stand for political and social critics as many of them take the shape of public figures, especially politicians. For instance, in the past couple of years Mr. Coronavirus, ex-presidents Alvaro Uribe, Hugo Chavez and Donald Trump were recurrent figures. After all, our bad luck sometimes is because of a few ones, and hoping to get rid of them may indicate a brighter future for most of us. 

Effigies sit where everyone can see them, by the rivers, at people’s doorsteps and on the road. When the bell counts midnight, people choke eating 12 grapes and then go outside to burn the dolls. Some people are brave enough to jump 12 times over the burning effigy even though they risk joining the effigy in flames. In fact, accidents are what’s led many countries to forbid the stuffing of fireworks, but that won’t stop the burning of effigies that assault the streets like hell.