Christmas Holiday in Saraguro! December’s Kichwa Kapak Raymi Festival and Navidad Celebrations


A "two-faced Wiki"

Saraguro in the Andes Mountains of Southern Ecuador is a mecca for the celebration of Kichwa culture. Four annual festivals or ‘Raymis’ during the solstices and equinoxes commemorate Saraguro’s majority indigenous community’s connection to their ancient Incan heritage. In December every year, Kapak Raymi, Cápac or Qhapac from the Peruvian Quechua for ‘wise,’ is a pre-Hispanic tribute to the sun that is reenacted during the southern hemisphere’s summer solstice at the end of the Western calendar year.

Not to be outdone, indigenous Kichwa and mestizo community members of Saraguro who identify also as Catholic organize in tandem an elaborate Christmas celebration or ‘Navidad.’ Make no mistake that although this is a Christian holiday, Saraguro’s public Christmas festival is still very much a unique creation and expression of their culture. The complementary days-long observances of Saraguro’s Kapak Raymi and Navidad commencing during the final annual solstice provide a rich profusion of authentic uncommercialized displays and offerings of indigenous costumes, rituals, music, dance, and local cuisine. Travelers and tourists interested in Ecuadorian sierra mountain folkways would be hard pressed to find a more engaging and activity-packed schedule of events.

Highlights of this holiday time include Warachikuy, Elección de Aklla, and the climatic days of Kapak Raymi and Navidad. Kichwa Warachikuy ceremonies commemorate the passing of young people into adulthood. Reconstructed in the 20th century from original early colonial Spanish histories of Peru’s Incan capital of Cusco, Peruvian reenactments of Warachikuy take place during Inti Raymi in June. These are games staged to test the strength and fitness for future warriors. Adopted in the 1990s by Saraguro’s Kichwa with a similar Incan heritage to the indigenous of Peru, Saraguro’s version is when the community welcomes men and women into adulthood. Saraguro’s Warachikuy ceremomy is for young Kichwa who have reached their 14th birthday. The observance is possibly a re-appropriation of the Spanish tradition of quinceanera society debuts for 15-year-old women who were considered to have reached a marriageable age.

Elección de Aklla, or election of community leaders, also takes place during Kapak Raymi. The Akllas' election ensures the continuity of Saraguro’s Kichwa leadership in order to maintain harmony and the well being of the community. The staff of power is ceremonially handed over to the new Kapak or ‘authority’ on this occasion. Spanish colonial culture has held sway in Saraguro for 500 hundred years. Electing their own community leaders is a way to take back their ancestral civic autonomy from a foreign system that has been embedded in their society for so long, that the people are willing to work for another 500 years to end its influence.

Kapak Raymi, is one of the four annual major Incan festivals obscured by Christian holidays imposed on the indigenous people by their former Spanish rulers. In Saraguro for example, Pawkar Raymi, the celebration of Mother Earth or Pachama’s abundant gifts, became Carnival and Lent. Inti Raymi, which honored the most powerful god in the Kichwa pantheon became a public observance of the rite of Corpus Christie represented by the Eucharistic body of Christ. In Saraguro, Killa Raymi, a festival honoring Pachamama’s fertility, was transformed into the church’s celebration of the divinity of the Virgin Mary. The final Raymi of the Kichwa astral and agricultural calendar, Kapak Raymi, was the passing of power from one group of community leaders to another. This important festival has reemerged after being subsumed by the Spanish Catholic Church’s Christmas holiday.

Commencing on the day of the solstice, contemporary Kapak Raymi publicly celebrates the birth of the sun god and is very much about the ties of the larger community. Public spaces are decorated with traditional Kichwa materials and symbols which set the stage for colorful processions and dances in the community.  These festivities are accompanied by a huge co-operative meal for the gathering that includes roasted meats, traditional Kichwa dishes specially prepared for Raymi festival times, and the sharing of delightful home brewed guava beer known as chicha. All of this happens under the benevolent eyes of the community mother and father, Markak tayta and mama, who have been given the honor of that designation for the festival.

Navidad parade

Several days before Christmas, Navidad celebrations begin in Saraguro. This is a festival with recognizable European Christian characteristics staged with local indigenous flair. Instead of community solidarity, the emphasis is on individual family observances including lavish dinners of roast turkey with all the trimmings. Christmas trees and nativity representations of the infant Jesus are part of the decorations on display. Caroling, Christmas presents, and the exchanging of sweets are all recognizable elements of the celebrations. Public dances and parades include dancers costumed as Andean bears, forest cats. Public portrayals of popular mythical characters, like the rainbow clad trickster ‘Wiki’ whose two faces see into the past and future or the hairy Ajas that embody the forces of nature, frolic for the public to enjoy.

For more information about visiting Saraguro and/or experiencing this celebration, contact Life in Loja by email, or phone/WhatsApp at 593-098-674-5994. We can custom design an itinerary that is perfect for you. Thank you for supporting local businesses!

Life In Loja is registered under Ecuador’s department of intellectual rights as of 2022.

References: Andinape, Ecuadordelsur, Elcomercio, Josevasquez, Ladisputa, Mintur, Saraguroraymidotcom, Saraguro y su cultura,Visitsaragurodotcom,Vocesazuayasdotcom, Wiki

Images: Somos Pachakutik


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