Best Places to Spend Christmas in South America
Wednesday December 11, 2019 - Posted by SSLA Team
Best Places to spend Christmas in South America — Head to South America for an extra special Christmas celebration this year! Each Latin American country offers its own unique songs, Christmas food and Christmas dinner. Christmas traditions in South America mix both religious, local, and cultural elements. Check out the different Christmas celebrations throughout different countries and check the Best Places to Spend Christmas in South America.
Christmas in Peru
One of the most important features and traditions in Peru is the Nacimiento or the nativity scene. Nativity scenes are set up in private homes, plazas, churches, cathedrals, and public, private and government institutions. If you work in Peru, there is a good chance your office may have a nativity scene with a distinctive design or theme. The nativity scene is open to your imagination and creativity.
Around the Christmas holiday, there is a festival for Villancicos (Christmas carols) in Peru in Quechua, an indigenous language commonly spoken in the Andes Mountains, especially nearby Cusco. This performance offers a unique mix of the native tradition combined with the Christian religion.
If you study Spanish in Cusco, you will see and help to build a nativity scene at the Spanish School in Cusco. Many Peruvian host families have nativity scenes at their homes too. The most interesting experience, however, will be the “Chocolatada” or Christmas charity party for the children in one of Cusco’s surrounding villages. To celebrate Christmas with the locals of a remote village, and hand out the gifts the school takes to give to the kids, is a truly unique experience you will not easily forget.
In the capital city, Lima, the weeks leading up to Christmas all full of activities and you will see Christmas trees all over the city. On Christmas Eve, many the churches hold mass at around 10 pm followed by an amazing firework display. As in Cusco, the Spanish School in Lima will be closed on December 25th but Spanish classes will likely continue on the 26th.
Santurantikuy Market in Cusco
Another significant event in Peru is the Santurantikuy Fair, which takes place in the Plaza de Armas of Cusco on the 24th of December each year. This is a popular time for families to buy a new animal, person or object for their nativity scene. The fair is also full of handicrafts, homemade gifts, native plants and mosses, candles and ornate clothes for the Niño Manuelito doll. The Niño Manuelito is a representation of Baby Jesus and comes from the name Emmanuel. Families in Peru dress their “Niño Manuelito” dolls with ornate pants, jackets, textiles, hats or embellished costumes. They go to the fair to specifically look for a new set of clothes or a new wooden chair for their Niño Manuelito. Some ‘dolls’ have been in their families for several generations. In some representations of the Manuelito doll, the boy is injured by a spine lodged in the bottom of his foot and his face is full of tears. This doll is called the Niño de la Espina.
Christmas Eve in Peru
On the 24th of December, families in Peru come together for a Christmas dinner, to eat Panetón, a traditional bread with dried fruit, and to drink hot chocolate. Typical Christmas dinners include turkey and many types of salads including a purée of Pallares, a type of bean, chicken salad, corn salad with mayonnaise and mashed potatoes. Some families prefer to have a Caldo de gallina at night or natural chicken soup.
A more typical meal is the well known Peruvian food lechón (baked suckling pig) with tamales and a special type of dried potato along with different types of salad. At midnight the Baby Jesus or the Niño Manuelito is placed in the nativity scene and people toast, hug, kiss, wish a Merry Christmas and open presents.
Christmas in Brazil
Many Brazilian Christmas traditions come from Portugal, as Brazil was ruled by Portugal for many years. The popular Presepio, or nativity scene, is set up in homes and churches during December. The Os Pastores (The Shepherds) play is also very popular to watch. In the Brazilian version of the play, there is a woman who tries to steal the Baby Jesus. Catholics will go to midnight mass or the Missa de Galo (Mass of the Rooster), which normally finishes around 1 AM. After mass, there is normally a large display of fireworks.
Santa Claus is called Papai Noel or Bom Velhinho. Santa’s suit is said to be made out of silk to help him stay cool in the tropical weather. As Brazil is very hot during Christmas many people go to the beach! Despite the hot weather, you will still see traditional coniferous Christmas trees (artificial ones).
A Christmas tradition among children in Brazil is to leave a sock by the window, and if Papai Noel finds the sock, he will exchange it for a present. As Christmas is generally a large family gathering, a popular way to give gifts is to play Secret Santa or Amigo Oculto.
The favourite Brazilian foods at Christmas time include pork, turkey, ham and salads along with fresh and dried fruits that are accompanied by rice made with raisins. Sometimes Chester (a round ball of turkey breast), lasagna or dishes with cod are also prepared. Depending on your location, a typical holiday bread may be served such as the German Stollen or an Italian Panetone. The meal is normally served around 10 PM on Christmas Eve and at midnight people greet each other, make a toast, exchange presents and wish everyone a Merry Christmas!
Christmas in Mexico
Traditions of Mexico at Christmas are quite extensive and elaborate lasting from December 16th to February 2nd. Therefore, Mexico is a great choice if you are looking for a destination for a Spanish immersion program in Mexico.
The Posadas Processions
December 16th to December 24th marks the nine Posada processions. These Posadas celebrate the story of when Mary and Joseph looked for a safe place to give birth to Jesus. People decorate the outside of their homes with evergreens, moss and paper lanterns.
To celebrate the Posadas, children call out to their friends and neighbours and sing a song at each home. The songs ask for a room to stay in the house. Each night the children are told there is no room and that they must leave. On the last night, the 24th of December, they are welcomed in. When the children go inside the house, they say a prayer of thanks and then celebrate with food, dinner, games and fireworks. When the Posada house has been found, a baby Jesus is put into the manger and the families and friends go to the midnight Church service. After the Church service, there are many fireworks to start the Christmas celebration.
The tradition of the Pinata
A game that is often played at the Posada party is the piñata. The piñata is covered in papier-mâché and clay and filled with sweets and hung from the ceiling or a tree. Children are then blindfolded and take turns hitting the piñata with a stick until it breaks open and all the sweets come out. The children then run to get as many sweets as they can.
» Interested in learning Spanish in Mexico? Mexico is a great choice for
Pastorelas or shepherds
There is a traditional Christmas play in Mexico known as Pastorelas (The Shepherds). This play is often very funny and tells the story of how the shepherds go to find the Baby Jesus. The devils try to stop the shepherds by tempting and confusing them along the way while angels assist the shepherds. But, the shepherds always find their way in the end, often with the help of the Archangel Michael.
Mexican Nativity scenes
Nativity scenes are also very common and popular in Mexico. Sometimes the figures are even life-size! The figures are generally made of clay and are passed down from one generation to the next. Figures include Mary, Joseph, Jesus, the shepherds and the Three Kings as well as women making tortillas, people selling food and different animals like flamingos. Baby Jesus is normally added to the nativity on Christmas Eve and the Three Kings are added at the Epiphany on January 5th.
Mexican food for Christmas
Mexican Christmas food includes Pozole, which is a soup made with hominy, chicken or pork, chillies and is topped with greens like lettuce. Other dishes include roast turkey, roast pork, tamales, bacalao (salt cod stewed with tomatoes, capers, olives and potatoes), romeritos (a green vegetable cooked in a mole sauce with potatoes and shrimp) and the ‘Ensalada Noche Buena’, which contains lettuce, beets or apples, carrot, orange, pineapple, jicama, pecans or peanuts and pomegranate seeds depending on your location. A popular Mexican dessert is the buñuelos that come in a flat or a round/ball shape. To accompany the dessert, there is often a ponche, a warm Christmas punch, which often has rum added to it.
Depending on the state in Mexico, children may expect Santa Claus to come on December 24th. In the South of Mexico, children may expect their presents on January 6th at Epiphany, which is also known as El Día de los Reyes. On the Día de los Reyes, the presents are left by the Three Kings. On this day, it is a tradition to eat the special cake called the “Rosca de Reyes” (Three Kings Cake). A small figure of Baby Jesus is hidden inside the cake and whoever finds the Baby Jesus figurine in their piece of cake is the “Godparent of Jesus for that year.
Día de la Candelaria, celebrated on February 2nd, marks the end to the Christmas holidays. On this special day, people dress up their Niños Dios and take them to the Church to be blessed. People eat tamales which are provided by the person who got the baby Jesus in the cake on King’s Day.
Christmas in Colombia
Christmas celebrations in Colombia begin on the 7th of December which is also known as the Día de las Velitas or Day of the Little Candles. Streets, parks and individual houses are decorated with candles, lots of lights and lanterns. There are also large firework shows, dances, music and foods like buñuelos and empanadas.
In Medellin, Christmas lights are a very big deal with displays on the Medellin River and displays covering about 100 different city parks. National Geographic also rated Medellin as one of the world’s best destinations for Christmas lights and so does the culture trip in their article about Christmas Lights in Medellin.
Also Bogota is a great place to spend Christmas. Nearly every building will be draped in Christmas lights as well any trees lining in the streets.
» See the Christmas lights in Medellin and Study Spanish at our Spanish School in Medellin.
From December 16th until December 24th many Colombians participate in the novenas. Family, friends and neighbours come together to pray in the days before Christmas. A different house usually hosts each night and Colombians sing carols and eat lots of food.
At the beginning of December, children in Colombia write a letter to Baby Jesus, not Santa Claus, to request what presents they would like to be gifted on Christmas Eve.
Colombian Christmas Food
Colombian Christmas food includes lechona (pork stuffed with rice and peas), ham, turkey or a chicken soup called Ajiaco Bogotano. Some other common Christmas foods in Colombia include buñuelos (fried dough balls), arepas (a dish made from corn) and Manjar blanco. Manjar Blanco is a milky spread made with milk, rice and sugar. The people eat it with hojuelas, a fried pastry with sugar and jam. Another popular Christmas dessert is called “Natilla” which is a type of custard or flan made from milk.
Colombians love to make their friends, family and co-workers work for their Christmas presents. There are games or challenges which are played on Christmas Eve when gifts are finally given. Games include three feet (tres pies) where you have to avoid your opponent placing their foot between yours. Another game is straw mouth (pajita en boca) which involves trying to keep a straw in your mouth all day.
On the 28th of December people celebrate Innocents Day with a lot of jokes. For example, TV stations will play bloopers that were made during the past year.
Christmas in Argentina
Christmas in Argentina is deeply influenced by traditions in Europe and North America. 90% of the population identifies themselves as Roman Catholic so Christmas is an important holiday in Argentina.
The main Christmas meal in Argentina is eaten during Christmas Eve, often around 10 or 11 at night, and may be a barbecue or an ‘asado’ as the argentines call it. Dishes include roasted turkey, pork, goat, veal served with an anchovy and tuna cream sauce, stuffed tomatoes, salads and lots of different sandwiches like pan de atun (tuna sandwich), sandwich de miga (sandwiches made of a thin white bread without crust) and torre de panqueques (a sandwich cake made from several layers with different fillings).
» Our Spanish School in Buenos Aires offers activities and trips throughout Argentina for the students attending Spanish classes in December.
Another Christmas Eve tradition in Argentina is the lighting of the globos. These paper balloons are lit from within and float up into the sky, creating a night sky full of lanterns.
On the Three Kings Day, January 6th, Argentinian children typically open their presents. The night before they leave their shoes outside the front door or under the Christmas tree to be filled with gifts.
Christmas in Chile
On Christmas Eve families and friends in Chile get together for a big dinner to eat asado or barbeque, chicken, turkey and pork. The traditional Christmas bread in Chile is called Pan de Pascua and is very similar to Panettone. A popular Chilean Christmas drink is the Cola de Mono or Monkeys Tail, made from coffee, milk, liquor, cinnamon and sugar.
Fun fact! In Chile, Santa is called Viejito Pascuero or Old Man Christmas or sometimes Papa Noel. Study Spanish in Santiago to learn more about this and other Chilean traditions.
In Santiago, you can visit the popular Christmas market in Praza da Quintana. There are more than 50 stalls with great Chilean food, crafts and gifts. There is a great atmosphere thanks to the many Christmas lights. Also, the stunning Santiago Cathedral will be drapped in lights.
Christmas in Guatemala
In Guatemala, on December 7th there is the Quema del Diablo or the Burning of the Devil. Guatemalans start a bonfire in the street to burn piñatas in the shape of a devil, e.g. in the city of Antigua. The belief comes from the idea that a fire will clean negative energies as a preparation for the birth of baby Jesus.
In terms of Guatemalan Christmas food, you can find the traditional tamales. The tamales are either made from corn, rice or potatoes. They can be sweet or savoury with various ingredients inside including olives, prunes, peppers, chicken or pork. There is also the warm and delicious Ponche de Frutas, made by boiling pieces of apple, pear, pineapple and papaya with some sugar, raisins and cinnamon.
Christmas in Venezuela
Traditional Christmas music in Venezuela is called Gaita music. Another type of music is called Aguinaldos y Parrandas. This music is similar to Christmas carols and therefore quite popular at Christmas.
A traditional Venezuelan Christmas food is the Hallacas. Hallacas are a mixture of beef, pork, chicken, capers, raisins and olives, wrapped in mais and plantain leaves; the leaves are tied up with strings and then boiled or steamed. The Pan de Jamón is a type of bread that is made with puff pastry and filled with ham, raisins, bacon and olives and shaped like a swiss roll.
Christmas in Costa Rica
In Costa Rica, many people look forward to spending Christmas on the beach. Houses are decorated with gorgeous tropical flowers. Christmas wreaths are usually made with cypress branches and are decorated with red coffee berries and ribbons.
After Midnight Mass the main Christmas meal is eaten and includes chicken and pork tamales wrapped in plantain leaves. People drink egg nog and rum punch. Apples become very popular to buy and sell during the days leading up to Christmas and it is common to find apple stands on the side of the road.
During December and January, there are many parties, parades, rodeos, bull runs and choral and dance festivals. On December 26th there is a fascinating horseback parade called the Tope. On December 27th many towns and cities in Costa Rica celebrate carnival with a grand parade accompanied by dancing and floats.
Have you ever celebrated Christmas in Latin America?
What are the Best Places to spend Christmas in South America according to you?
Share your experiences with us!