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Traditional Holiday Customs in Latin America

There’s just something about Christmas that gets everyone into a cheerful, merry spirit. Maybe it’s the sparkly lights, shiny wrapping paper, or the thought of surprising your loved ones with a thoughtful gift, but whatever it is, countries all over the world are excited for the holidays.

One of the more interesting details about Christmas is learning how people from different countries choose to celebrate. In the U.S, giant decorative Christmas trees pop up in city centers, children visit Santa at the local malls, and everyone goes into a shopping frenzy in search of the perfect gift for their very picky aunt. Goose and greens are staple dishes for Christmas dinner, and you can find groups of carolers singing traditional Christmas songs. But have you ever wondered about the traditional customs and foods of those in Costa Rica, Guatemala, and Peru? Read on to discover all the ways our friends in Latin America celebrate the holidays.


Holiday Customs in Costa Rica

Christmas in Costa Rica comes right around the end of rainy season, and the beginning of Summer, making it all the more special. It is common to find nativity scenes throughout the cities, twinkling Christmas lights, and an abundance of Christmas tunes. It’s a special time to gather with friends and family to celebrate a new season.

The observance of the holiday season begins in the second Saturday of December with the annual “Festival de La Luz”–The Light Festival. The festival brings a huge parade and an extravagant light show to downtown San Jose. Spectators enjoy live music, marching bands, colorful floats, and brilliant lights.

By this time, most families have begun to decorate and showcase their Christmas trees on their front lawns. One of the biggest Christmas tree displays goes up in front of the Children’s National Hospital in San Jose. The fanciful, twinkling lights are thought to bring hope in the coming year. On Christmas eve, presents are placed under the tree, but Santa is nowhere to be found. Instead, Jesus is the one who brings gifts to all.

Parades and festivals continue on Christmas day with the Zapote fair at noon. For the next two weeks, the Zapote fiestas bring carnival rides, bullfights, and traditional foods for all to enjoy. The event is family-friendly by day, and turns into a mega party at night. On the 26th, you’ll find the horse parade attended by thousands of riders strutting their riding skills and cowboy gear.

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During the exciting holiday season, Costa Ricans enjoy the traditional foods often made only during this time of year. Slow-cooked tamales are the staple around this time, but there’s no one way to prepare them. Almost everyone has their own version of the stuffed tamale. Typically, the tamal is made with corn flour and stuffed with potatoes, vegetable, chicken or pork. It is then wrapped in plantain leaves and steamed. The traditional drink of the holiday is Rompompe–Costa Rica’s version of eggnog.

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The season comes to an end with the New Year. No matter where in the country you are, the skies are lit with fireworks, as the party continues with music and dancing into a hopeful new year.

Holiday Customs in Guatemala

Thanks to Guatemala’s rich, indigenous history, the country’s holiday season makes for an interesting mix of Catholic and indigenous celebrations.

December 7th kicks off the traditional “La Quema del Diablo”–The Burning of the Devil. As a way to cleanse for the upcoming year, the people of Guatemala begin to build bonfires outside of their homes at 6pm sharp. Families begin to burn their trash with the belief that their homes will be cleansed of any lurking demons. In the city of Antigua, a towering devil is constructed and burned in the middle of the city, in hope of a devil free nation, and a more harmonious country. This tradition dates back to the 18th century when fire was first thought to be a purifying element by the native people.

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After the traditional burning, comes “La Fiesta de Santo Tomas”. This festival takes place in the city of Chichicastenango–known for holding the biggest open market in the country. Beginning December 14th and ending December 21st, you can expect music, dancing, fireworks, and the “palo volador”–a Mayan ritual during which men swing from ropes attached to a central pole.

If you can’t make it to Chichicastenango, don’t worry. Guatemalans also celebrate the season with “Posadas” all over the country. “Posadas” are processions that go on everyday from December 16th until the 24th. People follow the processions with colorful lanterns, music, and singing. Each procession leads to a designated house, and once at its final destination, the host serves food and beverages, and the party begins.

Traditional Christmas trees, lights, and ornaments can be found during the holiday season. But unique to Guatemala is their nativity set. Originally a Spanish tradition, Guatemalans sought to implement their native roots by incorporating indigenous elements used in the design and construction of the sets. For example, Guatemalans use colored sawdust to construct their nativity sets, and create characters with indigenous features to represent their ancestors. The “nacimiento” is then placed underneath the Christmas tree to showcase the art and creativity.

On Christmas eve, families gather together and eat the traditional meal, which includes many staple Guatemalan foods. One such dish is the Guatemalan tamale. Like Costa Rica, there are a variety of ways of preparing the tamale. In some regions, they are made of corn, while others use potatoes or rice. Some are sweet, while others are savory, and many include different ingredients such as peppers, prunes, olives, chicken, or pork. Another main dish is turkey, and apples and grapes are usually found at the table. The beverages of the season include punch, wine, champagne, and of course, coffee.

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After dinner, families typically spend time together talking, dancing, or playing games until opening gifts at midnight. Christmas morning is spent with the family indoors, recuperating from the festive events of the night before.

To bring in the new year, Guatemalans believe in wearing new clothes which signifies good luck in the new year. With festive, colorful costumes, music, dancing, and fireworks, Guatemalans take to the street to countdown to midnight, and celebrate long into the first day of the year.

Holiday Customs in Peru

Unlike Costa Rica and Guatemala, Peru isn’t known for month-long, commercialized celebrations, so don’t expect to find Santa or elaborately decorated Christmas trees. Instead, their main focal point of the holiday are the handmade nativity sets, similar to those created in Guatemala. In Peru, the nativity sets are often carved from pottery, wood, or huamanga stone. Once completed, they are placed into a manger, or “pesebre”, around which Christmas gifts are placed. On Christmas eve, you can find the Santurantikuy crafts fair held in Cusco’s center. There you will find local craftsmen building and embellishing the pesebres in as many ways as possible.

Like many South American countries, the most important day for celebrations and gatherings happens on Christmas Eve, or “La Noche Buena”. More religious families start the night by attending an evening mass, followed by eating a traditional Christmas dinner usually consisting of roast pork or turkey, tamales, salad, and mashed potatoes. The traditional dessert it called “paneton”–a sweet bread filled with raisins and candied fruits. The dessert goes perfectly with the traditional hot chocolate spiced with cinnamon and cloves.

“Chocolatadas” can be seen taking place throughout the holiday season. Chocolatadas are social events where people gather to drink hot chocolate, and donate gifts and a hot drink to the less fortunate children in the area.

The stroke of midnight sees fireworks light up the sky as neighbors clink pisco sour glasses in honor of Jesus’ birthday. A family member is chosen to place an image of Jesus in the pesebre, before exchanging and opening gifts. The children are sent to bed soon after, while the adults continue to festivities long into the night. Christmas day is normally quiet as families recollect themselves from the previous night’s activity.

Though some families may celebrate on Noche Buena, there are still families who stick to the Three Kings Day tradition, and don’t exchange gifts until January 6th.

Now that you’ve gotten a taste of a Latin American Christmas, you can try incorporating some traditions into your own celebrations, or better yet, spend the holidays in-country! For more information on how you can celebrate Christmas with a local family in Costa Rica, Guatemala, or Peru, click here.