December 20, 2009
Chile is not the exception to the extended tradition of burning puppets, effigies or sculptures made of waste materials, filled with sawdust, dressed in old rags and representing certain public or fictitious characters. Their final fate: to be incinerated at the edge of midnight, right before the first minutes of the New Year. However, in Chile this custom is more popular in the rural areas and less prominent in the larger urban centers, even though it can be seen in some districts.
In northern Chile the tradition has its own peculiarities and is widely practiced, especially in Arica, Iquique, Antofagasta and Tocopilla. The burning ritual is known as the “Quema de Monos” which translates into the “Burning of the Monkeys”, perhaps due to the humanoid figure of the puppets. In the town of Tocopilla the rite includes the mounting of big pyres called “Salnatrones” or “Salitrones” which consist in large mountains of saltine materials piled in layers, right by the seaside, where the sculptures are incinerated amongst a frenzy of crackling noise, fireworks, music and a festive atmosphere.
The night which precedes the arrival of New Year is not only a time for the more universal rituals of purification but also the final minutes of the departing year and the first minutes of the arriving one… Here, rites and ancestral traditions mix also with superstitions, most of which were introduced by the Spanish colonizers and have a direct relationship with good wishes and tricks to attract good fortune. This is why these later ones have deeper roots in the urban centers and less popularity in the rural countryside areas.
Among dozens of the most curious rites or superstitions, some of the most practiced ones in Chile are the eating of 12 grapes at the sound of the midnight bells; to greet the New Year with money inside the shoes or socks to bring financial prosperity; to have new clothes, you must use the underwear inside out; using yellow color underwear will bring happiness and pleasure; to rush out of the house with a suitcase in hand will ensure travelling; to cook and eat a sea bass without removing the scales is also a custom to attract monetary abundance; to eat a spoonful of cooked lentils during the first minutes of the New Year is another way of bringing prosperity and, for more money, introducing the hands on a receptacle full of sugar and then washing the hands with champagne, all at the sound of the midnight bells, will do the trick….
These somewhat peculiar traditions or pagan rites are closely linked with the perennial hope for power, abundance, prosperity, well being and prosperity. It is part of a massive catharsis which begins with chasing the evil, the pain and all the negative forces away by burning effigies which represent those maladies. It is also frequent to burn the puppets with a paper inside a pocket, carrying the list of all the negative events of the dying year, so they will not come back again…
And, of course, no matter the location or the ceremonies performed, abundant food, including local or more international platters are present, together with many drinks and toasts, a moment to celebrate life in the company of those closer to you, the loved ones, relatives, friends and neighbors. Chile contributes to this global celebration with its own share of particular traditions and local flavor; a fascinating voyage inside the myths and realities of the human nature and cultures, expressed around the never ending cycles of time…