Christmas Traditions in Spain and Latin America


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Throughout South America and Spain
Christmas is celebrated in a deeply
religious way. But there are peculiar and interesting differences in each country.


Argentina and Uruguay are countries with many cultural influences. So their Christmas traditions are diverse and it is very difficult to generalize. Following are some broad local traditions. Both countries have a summer time Christmas unlike that of the United States. Despite this, their traditions are quite similar.
People celebrate it with devotion and joy. The tradition of  Nativity scene and Xmas tree,  gift-giving, banquets and picnics, and fireworks at around midnight. 
People usually select any artificial or live tree to display at home. These trees are decorated  with colored lights, ornaments and candles. All Christmas gifts are placed under the tree. Many set up the Nativity scene, a model of the manger where Jesus Christ was born. 
The devout also attend a Christmas church service, if this is part of their family's holiday tradition. Many plan a barbecue or picnic
, as their Christmas meal, to take advantage of the pleasant weather. Along with the special and usual holiday items, pan dulce (a Christmas bread filled with candies) and sidra (cider) or champagne are served with dessert 


Throughout Bolivia, Christmas is celebrated in a deeply religious way. The main focus of the season is the pesebre or nativity scene which is found in both home and churches. On Christmas Eve, church bells ring to call families to Mass at midnight for La Misa Del Gallo or the Mass of the Rooster. The Christmas feasting begins when everyone returns home from Mass. Since December ushers in the Summertime in Bolivia, the Christmas drinks are iced and flowers are in bloom to give color to the season. On January 6, the feast of the Epiphany, it is the Three Kings who bring gifts for the children of Bolivia. On the night before Epiphany, children set out their shoes with letters to the kings.


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.


Chile's gift-bringer is called Viejo Pascuero (Old Man Christmas) who will wish everyone a Feliz Navidad y un Prospero Año Nuevo (a Happy Christmas and a Prosperous New Year). He strongly resembles Santa Claus and likewise comes drawn by reindeer. However, as chimneys are less than roomy in this warm climate, he contents himself with climbing a window. As in all Latin America, the manger scene is the center of festivities, and small clay figurines (called pesebre) are placed under every Christmas tree. Following the midnight Misa de Gallo (Mass of the Rooster), the Christmas Eve meal often includes cazuela de ave (chicken cazuela), a chicken soup filled with potatoes, onions and corn on the cob; and pan de pascua, a Christmas bread filled with candies fruit.


The Christmas season in Colombia starts on December 7 when families light candles in honor of the Virgin Mary. The church celebrates December 8 as the day of the Immaculate Conception. This is a Colombian National Holiday and a day of Obligation with the church. It is celebrated with a display of lights as each home will light approximately 100 candles on the curb and sidewalk area. City streets and parks are illuminated with large Christmas lights as well.
On December 16
, Colombian families typically start setting up the Christmas tree which is artificial for ecological reasons. The Christmas tree is decorated with lights and bowls. Families set up Nativity scenes which are either plastic or hand crafted figures. Everyone in the family contributes on this day.
From December 16 through December 24, families usually gather together at night around Nativity scenes to pray and sing carols in the Novena de Aguinaldos. On Christmas Eve family members and neighbors gather to eat and dance. Traditional Colombian foods include: ajiaco (a soup with potatoes), chicken and natilla (a corn based dessert) and buñuelos. Everyone waits until midnight to wish each other Merry Christmas and to exchange gifts.
Traditionally, El Niño Jesus, the Christ Child is the one who would bring you the gifts. But recently Santa Claus has been introduced as a gift-giver as well. Children get up on Christmas morning and find gifts at the foot of their beds.


Bright, tropical flowers highlight decorations for Christmas. Special trips are made to gather wild orchids blooming in the jungle areas. The manger scene is called a portal and is decorated with these brilliant flowers and colorful fresh fruit. Wreaths of cypress leaves and red coffee berries are very popular. The supper after Midnight Mass consists of tamales and other local dishes. Children used to leave their shoes out for the Christ Child to fill, but Santa Claus is relieving Him of this task now.


Christmas has been celebrated as a holiday in Cuba for only 3 years. Cuba officially became an atheist nation in 1962, but the Christmas holiday was celebrated until 1969, when Fidel Castro decided it was interfering with the sugar harvest.  
In 1997 President Castro restored the holiday to honor the visit of Pope John Paul II in the island, and with the reinstatement of the Xmas a large Mass is held in Havana's Revolution Square. Thousands of Cubans worship at midnight Masses, as church bells ring out across Havana to mark the moment when Christmas Eve becomes Christmas Day.
Cubans celebrate Christmas with traditional fervor and revelry. Those who can afford it try to make a special meal and decorate their houses, and church-going Christians attend services. Cubans spend the days before Christmas buying pork, apple cider, beans, bananas and other fruit in preparation for their holiday festivities.


Christmas Day is a day of colorful procession as the Indians who live and work in the highlands and mountains dress in their finest and ride their brightly arrayed llamas down to the ranches where their employers live. They bring gifts of fruit and produce, which they lay before the image of the Christ Child in the pesebre, or manger scene, which is set up in the ranch house. Children also bring their gifts and make pretty speeches to the Holy Infant, asking blessings for their family and their animals. Then there is a fiesta with much singing and dancing outdoors. The owner of the ranch distributes gifts to all his employees and their families. The huge meal will consist of roast lamb, baked potatoes and brown sugar bread. There is always too much to eat, so that the processions that wend their way into the mountains at the end of the day are as heavily laden with leftovers as they were with offerings in the morning.


Salvadorans, like most if not all Latin Americans, value family and put it first during Christmas celebrations. Family gatherings begin at about 7:00 pm (on Christmas Eve), when members start arriving at a determined home, mostly the grandparents. A must to bring along are fireworks, usually estrellitas which are used around midnight, when everything and everyone is in a festive frenzy with laughter and hugs for the birth of Baby Jesus. 
Christmas may very well be the one time of the year when the whole family is together and "catching up" is in order. Friends drop in to spread good wishes and are invited to stay over for dinner, even if it is known that most are doing their "traditional route" through friends' homes before arriving to their own family's celebration. The Misa de Gallo or "Rooster Mass", which is the name for the Christmas Mass begins at midnight. Some families choose to eat before the Mass, others after it. On the way to Mass, it is usual to hear the loud noise of fireworks. 
Dinner menus vary as does the times for dinner. Upper and upper middle class families may enjoy a more "Americanized" menu of turkey and ham, while traditional middle class and lower strata families may have chicken or even special homemade tamales.
Just before saying goodbye to the family, a tradition is to place the Baby Jesus figure as part of the Nativity Scene under the Christmas Tree. Even when the Nativity Scene may be set under the tree a month before, the figure is not placed until after midnight of this day, symbolizing that Christ is now born.



For nine days before Christmas, posadas (religious processions) pass through the streets. The beat of drums and the crackle of fireworks provide lively accompaniment as the figures of Mary and Joseph are carried to a friend's house, where a carol is sung asking for lodging for the Holy Family. After ritual questions and answers, the doors are opened and Mary and Joseph are taken to the nacimiento (manger scene) where they will remain until the next night, when they once again go out seeking for shelter. Everyone who accompanies the figures on their quest makes a great party with punch and hot tamales and dances once the goal is accomplished. On Christmas Eve, the figure of the Christ Child is added to the nacimiento at the last of the nine houses to receive the Holy Family. This is the signal for the biggest party of all, and the home selected had better be a large one, since everyone who was involved over the last nine days will show up on this night. The Christmas tree has joined the nacimiento as a popular ornament because of the large German population in Guatemala. Gifts are left under the tree on Christmas morning by the Christ Child for the children. Parents and adults do not exchange gifts until New Year's Day. Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve follows the posada and is in turn followed by a full supper.


Hondurans party in their homes, jobs, clubs, bars, and even in churches. It doesn’t matter what their social position or religion is, people everywhere prepare for several weeks before Christmas Day. They prepare parties for their families, friends and co-workers and have several traditional foods like pork, tamales, eggnog, beer and aguardiente.
They usually have a dinner with the family. Then they drop by the homes of their friends and neighbors to drink, eat and dance. They usually end up stuffed with delicious food and drink. Then, at 12 o’clock they all hug and say Feliz Navidad (Merry Christmas) to each other. At the same time, firecrackers and cherry bombs are exploding everywhere. It looks like a battlefield
After 12 o’clock, the young people usually go to bars to drink and dance until the sun comes up. The preparation before Christmas is usually made in homes and stores. But they all set their Christmas tree up and adorn it with lights and many other decorations. They also put little light bulbs outside their homes. And, of course, the kids make their list to Santa.  


Mexicans share many traditions with the Spanish. Their main Christmas celebration is called La Posada, which is a religious procession that reenacts the search for shelter by Joseph and Mary before the birth of Jesus. During the procession, the celebrants go from house to house carrying the images of Mary and Joseph looking for shelter. 
Several weeks before Christmas, elaborately decorated market stalls or puestos are set up in the plazas of every town and city. Some people travel for days from remote areas to get to these markets. The puestos offer crafts of every conceivable kind, foods such as cheese, bananas, nuts, and cookies, and flowers such as orchids and poinsettias. 
Santa Claus is not predominant, but the bright red suit is represented in the traditional flower of the season. This flower is the poinsettia, which has a brilliant red star-shaped bloom. There is a legend connected with the flower. A little boy named Pablo was walking to the church in his village to visit the Nativity scene, when he realized he had nothing to offer the Christ Child. He saw some green branches growing along the roadside and gathered them up. Other children laughed at him, but when he laid them by the manger, they started to bloom a bright red poinsettia flower on each branch. 
Mexican children receive gifts. On Christmas day they are blindfolded and taken to try and break a decorated clay piñata that dangles and swings at the end of a rope. Once the piñata has been broken, the children run to recover the candy kept inside. Those children who have been good also on January 6th receive a gift from the Three Wise Men


Like many Latin American countries, Nicaragua retains many of the customs of old Spain. In the weeks leading up to Christmas people stroll the streets where there are many things to buy: candles, Nativity pictures, toys and foods. Children carry fragrant bouquets to the altar of the Virgin and sing carols. On Christmas Eve, church bells beckon the people to Midnight Mass. On January 6, the feast of the Epiphany, the three Wise Men bring gifts for the children. Often the Holiday season concludes with a brilliant display of fireworks.


Christmas in Paraguay is celebrated in a deeply religious way. The main focus of the season is the pesebre or nativity scene which is found in both the home and in churches. December is the summer season in South America, and there is a profusion of flowers growing everywhere at this time of year. Churches and homes are decorated in bright colors to match the flowers. On Christmas Eve, church bells beckon the people to church at midnight for La Misa Del Gallo or the Mass of the Rooster. The Christmas feasting begins when family and friends return home from Mass. On January 6, the feast of the Epiphany, it is the Three Kings who bring gifts for the children of Paraguay. On the night before Epiphany, children set out their shoes with letters to the kings.


Many Peruvian manger scenes will feature the quaintly beautiful figures wood-carved by the Quechua Indians. On Christmas Eve, the meal after Midnight Mass features tamales (traditional local dish). Christmas Day festivities in Lima are highlighted by a procession with the statue of the Virgin Mary.


Early in the Christmas season, carolers begin going from house to house and from farm to farm. They wear homemade costumes of what the Magi might have worn and sing bright Spanish carols called aguinaldos and villancicos. They are rewarded with food and drink, and many from each house will join them, so that eventually there are great crowds going singing from place to place. Nine days before Christmas, the Mass of the Carols begins. This takes place each morning at 5:30 a.m. It is filled with music and usually the caroling continues on the way to work or home. The manger scenes are peopled with santos and hand-carved figures that represent some oldest works of art. The tree and Santa Claus are also popular. Gifts arrive on Christmas morning, but also on the Epiphany. On January 5 in the evening, children leave water, grass and grain under their beds for the camels of the Wise Men and the next day find presents in their place.


Christmas is a deeply religious holiday in Spain. The country's patron saint is the Virgin Mary and the Christmas season officially begins December 8, the feast of the Immaculate Conception. It is celebrated each year in front of the great Gothic cathedral in Seville with a ceremony called Los Seises or the "dance of six." Oddly, the elaborate ritual dance is now performed by not six but ten elaborately costumed boys. It is a series of precise movements and gestures and is said to be quite moving and beautiful. 
Christmas Eve is known as Nochebuena (Christmas Eve). It is a time for family members to gather together to rejoice and feast around the Nativity scenes that are present in nearly every home. A traditional Christmas treat is turrón, a kind of almond candy.
December 28 is the feast of Santos Inocentes (Holy Innocents). Young boys of a town or village light bonfires and one of them acts as the mayor who orders townspeople to perform civic chores such as sweeping the streets. Refusal to comply results in fines which are used to pay for the celebration.

As in many European countries, the children of Spain receive gifts on the feast of the Epiphany. Los Tres Reyes Magos (The Magi) are particularly revered in Spain. It is believed that they travel through the countryside reenacting their journey to Bethlehem every year at this time. Children leave their shoes on the windowsills and fill them with straw, carrots, and barley to feed the horses of the Wise Men. Their favorite is Balthazar who rides a donkey and is the one believed to leave the gifts.


In Venezuela on December 16th families bring out their pesebres (mangers) which is a specially designed and thought out depiction of the nativity scene. Venezuelans attend an early morning church service daily between December 16th and 24th. This is called Misa de Aguinaldo (Early Morning Mass). In Caracas, the capital city, it is customary to roller-skate to this service and many neighborhoods close the streets to cars until 8 a.m.
It is a tradition to attend at one of nine carol services which most Venezuelans observe. Firecrackers explode and bells ring to call worshippers from bed in the predawn hours. The last of the masses takes place on Nochebuena (Christmas Eve). Families attend a mass on this night and then return home to a huge and fancy dinner.  
Before bedtime children tie one end of a piece of string to their big tow and hang the other out the window. The next morning, roller skaters give a tug to any string they see hanging.

On January 6th when the children are awaken they will discover that the straw that they had left beside their bed the night before has gone, and in its place they can find gifts. The children know that the Magi and their camels have been at home. When they look themselves in the mirror and see a black smudge on their cheek they know that Baltha
zar, King of the Ethiopians has kissed them whilst they slept.


SOURCE: The Holiday Spot Website - Santas Website - Website