When Christmas time comes along in Latin America, it’s pretty impressive just how similar (and how dissimilar) a number of countries choose to spend their holidays commemorating the birth of baby Jesus.
You’ll find that the traditions often held by families and friends hold a deeply religious significance. What’s more is that throughout Latin America there’s little nuances that distinguish each country’s traditions from the next. Read on below to find out how they differ in our guide to Christmas Traditions throughout Latin America.
Argentina & Uruguay
With a number of historical and cultural influences dousing each of these countries in a smorgasbord of traditions, Argentina and Uruguay tend to consolidate and celebrate their holidays with Christmas trees and the nativity scene. Religious folk (specifically catholic and christian) attend church on the 25th and spend this time of the year (summer for them) getting together with close friends and family outside to host get-togethers and relish the good weather while preparing bountiful meals grilled over the barbecue. Sweet bread and apple cider often accompany these gatherings.
Bolivians celebrate their Christmas in a more deeply religious way, often putting up their nativity scene (pesebre) in their homes with a level of dedication and meticulousness unparalleled in other places. Churches too often put up a larger and more elaborate nativity right outside their doors. At midnight on christmas eve, the mass of the Rooster (La Misa del Gallo) is held and a large christmas meal is served afterwards at the household of each family. A traditional beverage served during this time is “cola de mono,” similar to eggnog.
As a South American country we have included Brazil although its national language is Portuguese. Northern Brazilians, like Mexicans, enjoy a version of the folk play Los Pastores (The Shepherds). In the Brazilian version, there are shepherdesses rather than shepherds and a gypsy who attempts to kidnap the Christ Child. Friends and family members may also take part in these plays. People make a special meal and decorate their houses. Many go to church to attend services in line with family tradition. Christmas picnics and banquets are also common. Special items and usual holiday recipes are tried along with the cakes and wines.
Chileans like to bring in a figure similar to that of Santa Claus into their Christmas celebrations, known as the Viejo Pascuero (Old Christmas Man). He, like Santa Claus, wishes everyone a Merry Christmas and New Years, but as chimneys are rather scarce in the warmer climate of Chile, he simply comes in through the window instead. The nativity scene is also set up in the household as well, and midnight (on christmas eve) is followed by a bountiful meal that includes cazuela de ave (chicken cazuela) – a soup made of potatoes, onions and corn on the cob. This is followed with desert in the form of pan the pascua (fruit bread).
The Christmas traditions start on December 7, with families lighting a candle in honor of the Virgin Mary. Following this day, churches commemorate the day of immaculate conception. What’s nifty about all this is that households typically end up lighting upwards of around 100 candles on the curb or sidewalk area in front of their house. Adding to this dazzling display of flaming lights are Christmas lights that decorate the trees and lampposts throughout the city.
December 16th sees Colombian families setting up and decorating their Christmas trees and nativity scene; gathering around said decorations throughout the days leading up to the 25th with prayers and carols (Novena de Aguinaldos).
Christmas eve has families getting together to eat and spend time together, with typical Colombian dishes such as ajiaco (a loaded and heavy chicken/potato soup) and natilla (corn based dessert) and bunuelos. Following this, the family waits until midnight to exchange presents and words of affection.
While Christmas was considered somewhat of an oddity for some time (if anything, it was completely avoided after Cuba declared itself an atheist nation in 1962), the tradition itself has experienced somewhat of a resurrection in the past decade . Following the visit of Pope John Paul II, Christmas was reinstated as a national holiday and brought with it large following, including religious congregations that are now held in Havana’s Revolution Square. Cubans tend to head to mass at midnight, with the church bells announcing the transition from Christmas eve into Christmas day. Bountiful meals are served at households for family and friends following this.
Ecuador celebrates the holidays with the usual fare of family, food, Christmas trees, lights and nativity scenes. In fact, in the capital, you’ll find that up on El Panecillo (a substantial hill visible throughout the city) the statue of the Virgin Mary has her own gigantic, glowing nativity scene at her feet and is a sight to behold from a distance at night. Families tend to gather on Christmas Eve for food and drink. At midnight they exchange gifts and words of affection. Attending mass during this time is also quite common.
The indigenous have a show of color and fine threads as they dress in their finest and ride brightly colored llamas down to the ranches where their employers live. Typically, they’ll bring gifts of fruit and produce with them, which they then lay down in front of the nativity scene which is set up out by the farmhouse. Children are the ones that typically give words or songs to the holy infant, asking for blessings for their family and future. Following this, festivities ensue with singing and dancing outside. The owner of the farm also gives gifts to his employees and their families, along with a big feast.
El Salvador is fond of intimate gatherings focused on family and friends. You’ll find that families, in their entirety, go to church together at this time. Following this, they’ll head back to the house and have a huge meal throughout the evening up until midnight, at which point presents are exchanged. One distinguishing feature about this tradition is that, throughout the weeks following up to Christmas, you’ll find that the nativity scene in homes lack the baby. It isn’t until midnight on Christmas Eve that families finally take out baby Jesus and put him in the manger, symbolizing that Christ is now born.
La Posada, as it’s known in Mexico, is a religious procession that focuses on the search for shelter by Joseph and Mary, and is usually performed as a reenactment by children or adults. The groups typically go from house to house carrying images of Mary and Joesph. During this season, market stalls pop up all around the city known as “puestos” that house all kinds of foodstuffs and flowers. Flowers specifically (the poinsettia in particular) seem to replace the concept of Santa Claus here, as their brilliant red-star shaped petals are found nearly everywhere.
Children receive gifts on Christmas Day, and are also (sometimes) blindfolded and given a swing at a pinata. Once successfully broken, the children scramble to reap the sweets and small toys that fall out. Should the children behave extra good during the holiday season, they’ll also receive a bonus present on the 6th of January from the three wise men.
Nativity scenes in Peru are typically made by Quechua Indians, and you’ll find a number of these beautiful, wood-carved figures throughout the country (should you get a chance to step into someone’s home). Following midnight on Christmas Eve, dinners are held back at home which feature tamales among a number of other delights. On Christmas day, the streets come alive with religious processions commemorating the Virgin Mary, her statue of which is transported throughout the streets.
Aside from attending the usual mass on Christmas Eve and the exchange of presents on Christmas day, Venezuela has a distinct tradition held on January 6th.
On this day, when the children awaken, they will discover gifts by their bedside, What’s more is that the children will know that the Magi and their camels have been at home, for when they look themselves in the mirror and see a black smudge on their cheek they then know that Balthazar, King of the Ethiopians, has kissed them while they slept.