Saraguro people's Christmas celebrations
Christmas time has a special resonance in the province of Loja (Southern Sierra of Ecuador), mostly in the region inhabited the Saraguro people, one of the five Quechua-speaking ethnic groups in Ecuador. It is a tradition that merges the Christian celebration of Christmas and the ancient Andean Cápac Raymi (Qhapaq Raymi) festival, the austral summer solstice celebration, which, at the time of the Tawantinsuyu (Inca Empire), included certain rituals and even today usually coincides with the maize sowing period.
One of the main ceremonies which brings Saraguro people and visitors together at Christmas time is a procession (joined by costumed characters) that accompanies the Baby Jesus figure along the streets and makes its way from the parish church to the festivities organizer's house (the marcantaita) and back to the church.
One of the roles of the organizer is to put on a selection of events (including food and dances) to entertain locals and visitors, however, the role of festival activities coordinator is shared by the priest and the síndico, a highly respected person within the community. Unlike today, when the priest recruits and the síndico gives advice, in the old times the latter was in charge of both selecting and advising the marcantaita, a man of high economic position who bears all the costs and responsibilities of the events organization (his wife is then known as the marcanmama). This man will take full advantage of all resources at hand including the traditional Andean system of compensation in return, that is, to give or do something equivalent in return for a gift, favour, etc., which allows a person to have a people network to help him.
The marcantaita learns about his nomination a year in advance, when the priest makes the announcement at the Mass of the Rooster (midnight mass on Christmas Eve): he will have the honour of "amarcar" Baby Jesus figure, that is, taking it to his house for a few days during next year's celebrations. One of the first tasks of the marcantaita is to choose six guioneros or guiadores (guides/advisers) to assist him throughout the process, and also to choose both the main musician or primero (a violin player) and the secondary musician or segundo that will accompany the former on the bombo (drum).
The main musician, in turn, will select the huahuas or juguetes, costumed dancers that take part in the parades, having to teach and rehearse with them the steps and moves. Three weeks before Christmas, the marcantaita and his guiadores perform the chaquiricuna (from Quechua chaki rikuna, "watching the feet"): a visit to the main musician's house with several obligaciones (gifts) to watch the rehearsals. Next, a few days before the festivities begin, it is the turn for the musician and the juguetes to visit the marcantaita's house to be given more gifts and show the outcome of their training. This is called the chaquiricuchina (from Quechua chaki rikuchina, "showing the feet").
The marcanmama, for her part, asks a cook to help her, given the sheer number of meals that will have to be prepared and served during the celebrations, while the marcantaita gathers people (through the old system of work exchange based in reciprocity known as minga) to cut and carry wood for the stove. Celebrations start on December 22nd with the huacra llushtina (from Quechua waqra llust'ina, "cattle skinning"): slaughtering and skinning animals which will be eaten in the coming days. On the very same day, people raise castillos (wooden logs/posts with gifts hanging from the tip of them) opposite the marcantaita's house; the number of castillos built will give an idea of his socio-economic status and social position.
The cullqui juntana (from Quechua/Spanish qullqi juntana, "gathering money") takes place on the following day: participants contribute money on their own and receive attention proportional to their donations. That evening, the Baby Jesus figure is carried in procession from the parish church to the marcantaita's house, where they will dance, drink chicha de jora and taste a special dish called uchu mate (a large platter with rice or potatoes, cuy or roasted chicken, bread and cheese). On Christmas Eve, the Baby Jesus figure makes its way back to the parish church in time for the midnight mass. Meanwhile, visitors from neighbouring communities come to the marcantaita's house to get soup and miel de panela (molasses served with bread and cheese), and the juguetes' wives (sometimes sisters, mothers, etc.) bring obligaciones (traditionally consisting of eight hard boiled eggs) to the marcantaitas.
On Christmas day there are dances in front of the church. During the whole day neighbours and relatives continue to come over and they are served food and drinks at the marcantaita's house. On the 26th celebrations are private. The marcantaita and his assistants, together with his relatives and friends, the musicians and the juguetes perform the cunzhu: the castillos are shared out and leftovers portioned out so everyone eats here or takes home something.
Some of the most popular and best-known characters of the Saraguro Christmas are the huahuas or juguetes: costumed dancers (usually male dancers) of any age. These characters are divided into ajas, huiquis, animals and their paileros, and sarahuis.
The ajas or diablicos wear a very long and characteristic wig of dried moss attached to deer antlers secured to their hat. They also wear a mask (made of sheep skin or fabric) and a whip. The wikis (huiquis) or monos (monkeys) are mischievous characters who wear a colourful attire, a mask of fabric and a little wiki figure hanging in their hand. The animals are the oso (bear) and the león (lion), each with his costume (sometimes made of sheep skin); the paileros are characters dressed as mestizo people, with long nose masks, straw hats, and a small drum used to make their animals dance. Finally, the sarahuis wear bright multi-coloured clothes; women (huarmi sarahuis) attire consists of a blue skirt, many kerchiefs, several necklaces and a headdress with ribbons and adornments called balaca (the same attire with slight differences worn by brides); men (cari sarahui) can carry a gigante (structure resembling a human figure) or be dressed up as jíbaros, with red trousers, masks and feather garlands.
Saraguro people's Christmas celebrations come to an end with the Fiesta de los Tres Reyes (Three Wise Men Festival), at which there is another parade featuring similar characters.
Article. "Los 'marcantaitas' y la reciprocidad en la fiesta de Navidad", by M. G. Albuja and J. M. Vacacela. Pueblos Indígenas y Educación (monographic "La fiesta religiosa indígena en Ecuador"), 33-34, enero-junio 1995 [es].
Article. "La celebración de las Navidades en Saraguro" [es].
Picture 01. Musicians of Saraguro.
Picture 02. Huarmi sarahuis.
Picture 03. A huiqui and two little cari sarahuis dressed as jíbaros.
Picture 04. Lion and his pailero.
Picture 05. Ajas and huiquis.
Picture 06. Bears.
Picture 07. Cari sarahuis dressed as gigantes.
Picture 08. Detail of the ajas.
Picture 09. Little cari sarahui dressed as jíbaro and a small aja.
Video 01. Saraguro people's Christmas celebrations 01.
Video 02. Saraguro people's Christmas celebrations 02.
Video 03. Saraguro people's Christmas celebrations 03.
Video 04. Huiquis and ajas dancing.
Video 05. Several pictures of juguetes dancing.