It’s that time of year again — you’ve surely noticed the deluge of Christmas decorations, music, and frenzied shopping all around you. Black Friday shopping, tree chopping, and pictures with Santa Claus are so ingrained in most of us that they’re almost second nature.
But not all of these same traditions exist in our home countries, each has its own unique and sometimes quite surprising customs — some of which we brought with us stateside. Here are Christmas traditions from all across Latin America that can help you feel a little bit closer to home.
In Colombia, the Christmas celebrations get started earlier than in most places with El Día de las Velitas (the Day of the Little Candles) on December 7. The tradition dates back to 1854 when Pope Pius IX declared the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary to be the official dogma of the Catholic Church. While the religious significance is strong, there is no shortage of celebration around this time to kick off the Christmas season with so many lights dotting Colombia’s calles.
Beginning nine days before Christmas, on December 16, the Novena de Navidad consists of nine days of singing around the Nativity scene. There’s even a guide for the specific structure of song and prayer. It’s popular in Colombia as well to round out the velitas celebrations.
Traditional in Mexico as well, the Posadas in Guatemala are another festivity that begins nine days before Christmas. Commemorating Mary and Joseph’s pilgrimage to find shelter before the birth of Baby Jesus, adults and children alike re-enact the biblical scenes. The celebration has something for both the very religious and the partygoers—with prayers, Christmastime punch, and piñatas!
While you might know about the longstanding tradition of the Posadas in Mexico, there are some other surprising celebrations you might not know about. Dating back to 1897, every December 23 the Night of the Radishes is celebrated in Oaxaca. Merchants compete to create the most elaborate radish carving as tourists flock from all over Mexico to join in the celebration. Yes, that’s right—they actually make raddish sculptures! And did you know that the poinsettia actually traces its origins back to Mexico, where it’s known as the flor de Nochebuena? It was only after Mexican Independence in 1821 where Joel Roberts Poinsett became the first US Ambassador to Mexico and brought the flower that has come to symbolize Christmas back stateside.
In El Salvador and other countries in Central America, you could easily confuse the elaborate firework displays on Christmas Eve with a Fourth of July or New Year’s Eve celebration. However, because of the high number of casualties caused by the fireworks, this practice has come under increased scrutiny by government officials in past years.
Nacimientos (Nativity scenes) are taken seriously in Peru—the Instituto Cultural Teatral y Social in Peru holds an annual Nacimiento competition, where Peruvians from all over the country congregate to show off their craftsmanship in recreating Jesus’ birth. Taking place yearly since 2005, the competition produces a variety of unique Nativity scenes incorporating elements from Peru’s diverse regions.
Quite distinct from the rest of Latin America, Uruguay is a secular country and Christmas is not an official holiday recognized by the government. It’s called the “Day of the Family” instead, though people celebrate with trees and feasts in gatherings resembling what we traditionally think of as a Christmas celebration.
This is one of the few countries that calls Christmas “Pascua” (usually Easter elsewhere in the Spanish-speaking world) instead of “Navidad.” Chile is famous for its pan de Pascua introduced by German and Italian immigrants—a spongecake like bread with ginger, honey, nuts, and candied fruits.
Brazil & Costa Rica
If you’re worried about your Christmas shopping budget, perhaps you should think of a move far down south to either Brazil or Costa Rica. Both countries require a Christmas bonus by law! Known as the thirteenth salary in Brazil, and the “Aguinaldo” in Costa Rica (as well as in Mexico), workers can expect to be compensated handsomely before Christmas as the holiday shopping season arrives.
Puerto Rico & Cuba
Very well known on la isla, Parrandas are a sign that Christmas has arrived in Puerto Rico. You might call this a more expressive and intense version of the Posadas in Mexico or Guatemala. Friends will gather and “asaltar” another friend with intense singing and passionately playing different musical instruments. Cuba’s version of the parrandas have a long history behind them — dating back to the 1800s in the town of Remedios. The festivities are at a much larger scale and celebrated across the island, though Remedios has the largest gathering.
You might see him adorning storefronts and as a decoration on the mantelpiece, but in Venezuela, it’s Baby Jesus rather than Santa Claus who delivers gifts to children. And while it’s definitely too hot for ice skating, during the patinatas you will see plenty of roller-skating and bike riding in the fresh air to kick off the season.