Christmas In Cuenca—Celebrating El Pase del Niño Viajero
“Every morning in Cuenca, Ecuador” writes Latin America Correspondent Lee Harrison, “the sunrise backlights the jagged Andean peaks and church steeples, casting its glow over the sea of clay-tile roofs.
“But on the morning of Christmas Eve in Cuenca, it also lights up an impressive scene that comes but once a year.
“On this day, thousands of Ecuadorians come to Cuenca from all over the country to celebrate a procession known as El Pase del Niño Viajero, loosely, ‘the passage of the child.’
“It’s a custom that started in the 1960s, when a statue of the Christ Child, called El Niño Viajero, was blessed by the Pope and then brought to Cuenca from Rome. The event is a core tradition in Cuenca today.
“The extravagant, ad-hoc parade extends for miles and can include more than 35,000 people, local residents and visitors, who walk along with the participants.
“The Pase del Niño is not centrally organized but consists of hundreds of small family delegations who come from cities, towns, and villages across the country.
“Many of these people are of humble means, often indigenous or campesinos. Some come on foot, many on horseback, and some in old, creaking vehicles. But no matter how they arrived, they’re always ornately adorned for the occasion.
“You’ll see many a small child dressed in a colorful, hand-made costume and dwarfed by the giant horse he or she is riding…a horse that is also ornately bedecked for the occasion.
“You’ll see troupes of dancers, performing an indigenous dance or perhaps the Baile de Cintas, a traditional dance in which 12 dancers hold a long ribbon while dancing around a tall central pole.
“And there will be vehicles, from tiny, old pickup trucks to large flatbeds, sporting anything from a mobile nativity scene to a band and always decorated for the occasion. Some floats are overflowing with flowers, while some are adorned with fruit, from pineapples to papayas.
“In many cases, the vehicles also display large, roasted pigs, presented on the hood and ready for feasting.
“People’s costumes vary from nativity-style robes to intricately decorated and sequined outfits. Often the center attraction of each small group is a baby or small child, dressed as baby Jesus.
“The procession ends in the center of historic Cuenca, where the edible decorations on the floats are removed and given away to the area’s poor people in need of a good Christmas meal.
“No matter where you travel after seeing your first Pase del Niño, the spirit of Christmas in Ecuador stays with you…”