By Sylvan Hardy
One of Cuena’s most dramatic traditions is the year-end burning of dummies. When the clock midnight tonight, thousands of dummies will be set ablaze in city streets. Many more will burn earlier.
Most dummies, called año viejos because they represent the old year, are made of cloth and filled either with sawdust, ground cardboard, straw, or leaves. The dummy faces are masks representing everyone from presidents, city councilmen, and cartoon characters to wayward family members. Most of the masks are paper maché and hand-made and sell for $2 to $5 at many locations around town.
The dummies’ stuffing occasionally contain firecrackers and Chinese rockets which are set off during the immolations. These sacrificial offerings do not go gently into that good night.
Many of the dummies are works of art, but foreigners who want to rescue one from the pyre for their living rooms should choose carefully. Some dummies are filled with vegetable matter or even barnyard manure and tend to make unsavory house guests.
The dummy tradition dates back more than a century but its origin is largely a mystery. Although it is often claimed that the Ecuadorian practice began in 1895 in Guayaquil, following an epidemic, when the dead were burned in large pyers, others say the tradition goes back further, to the early 1800s in Cuenca.
Several history books report that the practice combines ancient Andean ritual with Spanish rites of the 1700s, most likely connected with the Feast of St. Joseph. Although it began in Ecuador, the tradition was spread, reportedly by Catholic priests and monks, to other Latin American countries.
The meaning of the event seems simple enough: out with the old and, we can assume, in with the new. The dummies become the embodiment of disappointments, pain and frustrations from the old year, and the burning the symbolic catharsis and purification. For good measure, many celebrants jump over the burning or smoldering dummies three times at midnight. Each year, several dozen Cuencanos show up in emergency rooms on New Year’s Eve, having fallen into fires or been hit by exploding rockets. Cases of pyrotechnic enemas have been reported.
The days of dummy burnings — at least in the streets — may be numbered. The practice has been banned in some Ecuadorian cities, including Quito. The fires can damage asphalt and city governments say the cost of repairs isn’t cheap.