Updated: Feb 4
The burning of “monigotes” (puppets), otherwise known as the "old years," began in Ecuador in 1842 when we were going through a yellow fever pandemic. The tradition was born in Guayaquil where they began taking the old clothes of the deceased, filling the clothes with straw, and then burning the puppet. The thought was that the virus would be scared away and eliminated by fire. This tradition goes back thousands of years and it has its origin in the roots of Christian, Mayan and Garífuna traditions. Between the 5th and 6th centuries in Greece the tradition was that the king was burned alive at the end of his reign and after many years a wooden king was burned to symbolise and continue this tradition. The act was always carried out on the top of a mountain and traditions varied from region to region, but the meaning of it was always the same, burning the old to make way for the new.
In Ecuador, the puppets are no longer just simple rag dolls or cardboard stuffed with straw. The puppets are now extravagant works of art, made to honor science fiction figures, presidents, cartoons, soccer players, and celebrities of all kinds. These puppets are put on display all over Ecuador in cities such as Guayaquil, Quito, and Cuenca. In Guayaquil the puppets line the streets of the suburbs and in Quito the puppets will be on display until January 16th near the Middle of the World (Mitad del Mundo). But you won't want to miss the contest for the best “old year” either, which is held in Cuenca. Although the tradition is to burn the puppets, it should be noted that they take months of complex construction to create. Because of this, many of the puppets will never be burned or sold and will be kept as a symbol of hard work into the new year.
Ecuador is a country marked by rituals, since its inception as a free and fertile land, its native people worshiped the moon and the sun and believed in the Andean worldview. As a people that come from the Incas, our customs are similar to those of our ‘sister’ Latin American countries, who value rituals as immeasurable traditions. Unfortunately though, many traditions and rituals have been forgotten since newer generations have stopped practicing them. One of these traditions is that of the “Viudas,” or Widows. These are men disguised as women, wearing long black or tiny dresses, and dawning caricatured features of the feminane image such as large breasts and buttocks. In Ecuador, this custom accompanies the burning of “old years.” Widows go out on December 31 to make jokes and dance prior to the great burning of the puppets. The widows close the main streets of the towns, cantons, and cities to carry out their charades, stopping traffic by approaching the windows of the cars and ensuring that they cannot pass without leaving a contribution. Then they end the night by eating, drinking, and playing games with whatever they have collected throughout the day.
Another forgotten tradition is the “Testamentos” or Wills of the widows. Along with the burning of the ‘old year,’ one of the funniest end-of-year traditions is reading the wills of each puppet. This usually includes friendly jokes and some embarrassing truths for the chosen person. Towns will generally choose a well known person in their community or sometimes a person who has been going through rough times. The wills coincide with the artifacts and clothing that are adorned on the puppets and are read as the puppets are dragged through the streets until it hits midnight. Then, right at midnight is when the burning of the puppets starts, and the real celebration begins!
There are many traditions that accompany the burning of the “old years” in Ecuador, and they are varied according to the religions practiced by the believers of the rituals. Among the most common are: the ritual of the 12 grapes, the use of yellow pants, having a glass of champagne, having a lentil dinner, running a suitcase around the block, sitting and standing up from a chair 12 times, making a puppet out of your old clothes and burning it, writing everything bad from the past year on a piece of paper and burning it with the puppet, taking baths, and creating concoctions. A less common tradition for women who hope to get pregnant in the new year is to drink a tall glass of warm milk as well, but all of these traditions can be found somewhere in Ecuador every year on December 31.
Ecuador, a country full of traditions, begins this 2022 with a different feeling in the air. Many postponed traditions, and long-awaited burnings, the last two years have not made it possible to enjoy the traditions that we are used to. But the meaning remains the same for everyone, a new year is symbolic of a new beginning, to start projects, and acquire new habits. Every January 1 we allow ourselves to be swept up by hope and joy, that maybe, just maybe, this year will bring us a few changes to make it better than the last. Here's to a bright and beautiful 2022.