El Pase del Niño in Cuenca is, without a doubt, one of the most important demonstrations of popular religiosity of the country. This celebration reflects, as well as few others do, the culture and traditions of a people that expresses its beliefs in multiple and diverse forms of folklore.
El Pase del Niño has as its purpose to adore the Niño Dios (God as a child). These ceremonies honoring a nascent god have their most remote origin in Hellenic and Romanic cultures. Actually, in Rome, the nativity of the sun associated with the image of the Caesar is celebrated on December 25th. When Christianity was imposed as the official religion of the Roman Empire, this day started to be used to celebrate the birth of Christ. It is known that St. Francis of Assisi celebrated the Nativity of Jesus for the first time in an attractive way in Europe, with a live representation of the facts in which humble people of the country represented the Virgin Mary, Joseph and the Baby Jesus. Soon, this tradition which was impelled by the Franciscans was spread throughout the Christian world. This and other religious traditions were diffused starting from the times of the Colony in our country. Worship to baby Jesus is performed by means of novenas, mass and the decoration of mangers.
A tradition in Cuenca
Cuenca is the place where the tradition of the decoration of mangers and worship to God as a child during Christmas celebrations has had the greatest reception. The families from Cuenca have also added some very own and autochthonous elements to this tradition. The processions in which participants (mainly children) dress up on religious and profane costumes, known as “Pase del Niño” (Pass of the Child), focus on the image of Jesus as an infant, generally dressed with very elegant clothing of silk and velvet stitched with gold and silver decorations. This parades in which there is a massive participation of the popular social class and peasants, are organized each year in the city and the surrounding towns. They start on the first Advent Sunday and end on Carnival Tuesday.
All preparations start with much time in advance directed by “priostes” (hosts) and “mantenedores” (president). The hosts are the ones who sponsor the event socially and financially, every year they are elected in agreement with the circumstances of each town. Many decide to volunteer themselves to do it, while others are designated by the former host or by the community. The president, on the other hand, is the one responsible of all aspects related with the Pass and they are in charge of keeping the tradition alive, therefore their period of service is quite long.
Greater and Minor Passes
There are two types of Passes: greater and minor. The first ones are those with a great number of participants. In these processions the people worship a Niño Dios (God as a child) that belongs to a temple or religious community. The minor Pass involves a smaller number of participants and it is generally of familiar nature. There is also a very complex ritual preceding the performance of Passes, it includes an invitation and watch. The invitation is extended with many months in advance and it is addressing the city people as well as peasants. All guests get a present from the president; it is usually of sweet bread commonly known as “costar” and a glass of “chicha” (a sweet drink). Accepting the gift will mean a commitment to take part in the Pass. Finally, the night before mass, a watch is performed. All participants “accompany” the image of Niño Dios in a church when it is a greater Pass, and the host’s home when it is a minor Pass. When the watch is performed at someone’s home it is very common for the guests to bring along liquor and food to celebrate the event which will end at dawn with a cup of coffee, cinnamon tea or hot chocolate and a piece of bread.
The most important among all Passes is the one in honor to the “Niño Viajero” (Traveling Child) which is celebrated each year on December 24th in Cuenca. An image of the Niño Dios that was sculpted in 1823 by request of Mrs. Josefa Heredia is known with that particular name. Its last owner, Monsignor Miguel Cordero Crespo, performed a pilgrimage to different places of Holy Land in 1961 along with the image of the child which was blessed by Pope John 23rd at the end of the trip. When he returned to Cuenca, the enthusiastic people gave the sculpture the name of “Niño Viajero” (Traveling Child) and from then on a cult of worship with much pomp is offered on Christmas day with a procession or Pass that generally starts at 10:00 a.m. and finishes at about 3:00 p.m. This procession initiates on Ordoñez Lazo Avenue and travels along the Simón Bolívar Street downtown. All traditional elements of this celebration can be observed, such as the colorful and countless “carros alegóricos” (allegorical cars), the popular bands performing songs honoring the Child, country music bands, children wearing biblical characters costumes, shepherds, gypsies, jíbaros, saraguros, otavalos and other ethnos and mayorales (stewards). These are particularly attractive and interesting since they represent the peasant of the provinces of Azuay and Cañar that had great power and prestige among the peons of the big farms; and in general, man and woman of good economical status. Their outfits are stylizations of the attire of cholos and cholas of the region, therefore, they are very colorful and elegant in order to express wealth. They ride horses covered with fine blankets or knitting of wool and silk; equipped with the “castillo” (castle) (a group of different foods assembled in shapes of garlands with fruits, legumes, bonbons, bottles of liquor, toys, etc.) These “castles” constitute “offerings” to the Child, and they are formed by a tray with cooked meals carried on horses that belong to the president and in some other cases these trays are carried on allegorical cars, or in baskets carried by the shepherds. The most common foods are cooked potatoes, boiled eggs, hot peppers and baked meats like pork, guinea pigs, turkey and chicken which have colorful ribbons with dollar bills hanging from their snout or beak.
Once the Pass is over, there are celebrations afterwards at the homes of each family that participated. At home they carefully disassemble the “castle”. The food from the offering is distributed among the members of the family and their guests during a great banquet.
The Pass of the Child in Cuenca is a popular religious demonstration of great ethnographic wealth, and in spite of time and the continuous presence of foreign cultural elements, it maintains its splendor. This is a celebration that does not only respond to the humble faith of simple people but also to their desire to stand out and to value the cultural elements that characterize them.
Terms related to El Pase del Niño
(Source: “El Pase del Niño” by Susana González)
ALBAZOS: Musical tune of popular character interpreted by a band at dawn.
ANGEL DE LA ESTRELLA: (ANGEL OF THE STAR) An important character of the Pass of the Child. It represents the start that guided the wise man to Bethlehem. It always opens up the parade carrying a silver star and it is dressed on white riding a white horse as well.
BANDA: (BAND) It is a group of musicians whom perform during every religious festivity celebrated at the country and in the city. There are some well organized bands that belong to different associations which are willing to serve during the various processions in honor to the “Niño Dios” (God as a child).
BORLERAS: Are the people who will be the “priostes” (hosts) along with the “pendoneros” (announcer) in the next year’s celebration.
CASTILLO: (CASTLE) Framework made of reed and wood of about 1,20 mt x 60 cm. covered with food, decorations and mainly fruits. They are placed on a horse’s flank and they constitute the main attraction of the horses that belong to the mayorales (stewards). The lateral decorations of the allegoric cars are also called “castles”, as well as the pyramidal wood framework decorated with loafs of bread, fruits, clothing garments, and a great variety of elements brought by the participants to the celebration after the Pass or to any other religious celebration.
CONTRA DANZA: A dance performed by different characters in which some couples dance too.
CORO: (CHOIR) A group of “priostes” (hosts) of the “Niño Dios” (God as a child) whom take turns to watch the sculpture which belongs to a church or to a host at their homes. This watch has a very important religious, social and financial role.
CUCHI PANES: Pieces of bread shaped on different forms and sizes which are specially made to decorate the castles and the allegorical cars.
CHAGRILLO: Abundant petals of flowers taken by the children participating of the Pass. This “chagrillo” is sprinkled over the image of the Child during the procession at the rhythm of Christmas music.
NEGRODANZA: A child dressed up as an Afro-American person who dances during the parade.
PENDONEROS: (ANNOUNCER) A person who opens up the procession carrying a small banner. This person walks next to the “borleras” whom will be the hosts for the next year.
TONOS DEL NIÑO: (TUNES OF THE CHILD) Each musical tune that will be performed to honor the “Niño Dios” (God as a child)