Burn the “Old Year” to Start a New Year in Ecuador

At the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve in Ecuador, people around the country bring effigies of politicians, pop culture figures and other icons of the year to torch in the streets. This powerful communal tradition of burning the “año viejo” (“old year”) is symbolic of cleansing the bad habits from the previous 12 months.

Most “año viejo” effigies are made of cloth and filled either with paper, old clothes, sawdust, ground cardboard, straw or leaves. The dummy faces are hand-made masks representing everyone from presidents and city councilmen to cartoon characters and wayward family members. Most of the masks are paper maché and the stuffing occasionally contains firecrackers and Chinese rockets, which are set off during the celebration.

This tradition is widespread throughout the country and each region creates effigies with cultural and social experiences specific to their area. The tradition is the strongest in the Pacific coast where the effigies are quite often the largest and the displays are more elaborate. The cities of Quito and Guayaquil also host large public demonstrations and competitions organized by local newspapers. El Universo newspaper in Guayaquil and Diario Hoy in Quito organize, judge, and award prizes to the winners of the best “años viejos” in their cities. In Quito, the event is witnessed by hundreds of thousands of spectators who visit Amazonas Avenue to observe a wrap-up of the year’s events via the “año viejo” displays.

During the day, most cars drive around with effigies tied to the front or on the roof. Meanwhile, men assume the role of the “viudas” (“widows”) of the effigies and beg for money in mourning in the streets. At midnight, the effigies are burned as a ritual of purification and renewal, a cleansing of old, negative energy, individual and collective failures, regrets, bad habits, bad luck and evil from the previous year. Oftentimes, the effigies are heaped together in big piles to create large fires in the middle of the streets. It is said that jumping over the burning effigies brings good luck to those who successfully accomplish this feat.

Some scholars suggest the tradition began around 1895 when yellow fever came to the Ecuadorian coast, which forced ignition of clothing and property of the sick.  That year people packed coffins with the clothes of the dead and set them in flames, the act being both a symbol as well as a purification rite. Now the figures that are burned are much more lighthearted and elaborate, with some towering effigies vividly painted and paraded through the city, while some families make do with scarecrows stuffed with newspaper and covered with a mask purchased from one of the many street vendors.

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