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.
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.
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.
What sounds better than a warm savory drink on a cold winter evening with the family this Christmas? If you haven't tried it yet, Mexican Ponche Navideño (Mexican Hot Punch) is sure to delight. A recipe filled with savory combinations of oranges, sugar cane, hibiscus flowers, cinnamon, tamarind and familiar flavors from Mexico. Adults, try adding some reposado Tequila to it for a kick!.
Try Tastemade's recipe for Ponche Navideño
For ingredients, check your local Mexican Market for all the ingredients pre-packaged for your convenience.
YouTube Chef Grego puts his spin on a traditional Puerto Rican drink usually made for the winter holidays. "Coquito" (means "little coconut" in spanish). A coconut and rum infused drink that you are sure to love and enjoy!
Still searching for Christmas gift ideas? Shop at Nepantla Cultural Arts Shop online. Choose from a unique selection of apparel, jewelry, handmade gifts, and amazing works of art by local and national artists.
Nepantla is a Nahuatl (Aztec language) term which describes being in the middle or the space in the middle. The term was popularized by Chicana writer/scholar Gloria Anzaldua.
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The Day of the Dead/ Dia de los Muertos begins on November 2nd in Mexico but it is celebrated from October 31st-November 2nd. Traditionally, this sweet bread with shapes of bones on top is baked in Mexico during the weeks leading up to November 1st & 2nd. This bread is a major staple included as an offering in altars that honor the dead soul. It is believed that the bread insures that the souls of the dead have nourishment to make it through their long journey to visit us. Learn more about how to make the savory pan de muerto for your altar.
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