While many northern and European cultures ring in the New Year with “Baby New Year,” many places in Latin America and especially the state of Oaxaca, prefer to burn The Old Man, El Viejo. At the end of 2020, I’m going to celebrate Oaxaca style.
Here, people make a life-size doll and burn it. As it goes up in flames, they hope that the bad part of the year comes to an end.
In neighborhoods and towns in Oaxaca, the tradition of making the dolls that will be burned for the Old Year continues. The tradition is most popular in rural areas.
Most dolls are just fashioned into an old, tired man, usually drunk. He’s usually sitting along the road with a shirt, pants and jacket and here along the coast, his head might be made out of a coconut with the coco fiber sticking up as hair and his face painted on. He will always be holding a bottle: mezcal or tequila. He’s usually slouched down and tired, as the bottle is empty. Seeing how this year has gone, he might be lying face down on the side of the road.
Sometimes he’ll have a jar asking for donations… to buy more fireworks, of course!
Some dolls are characterizations of political figures, like Trump or Lopez Obrador, Mexico’s President or other people who have become infamous during the past year.
The dolls start popping up around mid December. The doll is stuffed with leaves, sticks or straw but different from scarecrows, these dolls will be laced with fireworks and maybe a little gunpowder. Sometimes they’ll have a sign around their neck because they have one last farewell wish for the year gone by. This year a drawing should suffice.
El Viejo burns at midnight on the 31st of December and the hope is that the negative things of the past year burn up with him. It is a purification ritual to transition to the new year.
Before he burns, a eulogy may be said based on the year’s events and anecdotes from the families and town. After he burns, neighbors and families gather to read his will complete with advice!
The origin of the tradition may come from ancient European pagan rituals as the Saturnals of the Romans or the Celtic rituals and the Olentzero in the Basque Country and Navarre in Spain. However, sometimes, it is explained to be linked to indigenous people of the Americas.
I suspect there will be more “Old Men” than usual at the end of this year. Send us your photos of them if you find them!