Every country has their own version of Christmas. Latin America, as well as Spain, remains a mostly Roman Catholic region where Christmas is most widely observed with religious symbolism. Deeply embedded in tradition and worship, it is a time synonymous with family, joy, and luscious foods. Here are 10 Christmas traditions from Spain and Latin America.
Step aside, Santa! As disappointing as it might sound, Santa and his reindeer will not be discussed in many Latin American and Spanish homes. El Niño Jesús, Baby Jesus takes centerstage during this season, when everything related to his birth and welcome to the world is celebrated. Also, although it is possible to have a white Christmas in Spain, Latin American are enjoying the blazing sun during Christmas. In countries like Argentina, Chile, and Paraguay–in the Southern Hemisphere–they enjoy the opposite season as in the northern hemisphere. So while you are freezing in the New York winter, Buenos Aires is enjoying summer.
It is very common for people to listen to and sing Christmas carols, known as aguinaldos, in Latin America, or villancicos navideños, in Spain. All throughout the Christmas season and New Year’s Eve families will sing and play musical instruments like the guitar or tambourines. These songs can be part of a parranda, a tradition where people go from house to house singing aguinaldos. Other traditions around Christmas include las posadas, the nine-day observance and reenactment of Mary and Joseph’s quest for shelter; and Las Velitas (meaning “Little Candles”), the candle-lit, Colombian celebration starting on December 7, the day of the Immaculate Conception.
Although the time is debatable, it has been said that a cock crowed on December 24 from the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore. Because of this, at some point during his papacy (432-440), Pope Sixtus III instituted Midnight Mass, La Misa del Gallo, meaning “The Mass of the Rooster,” which was first witnessed in Rome. Today, La Misa del Gallo is observed in Spain, as well as in other Latin American countries, such as Bolivia. Those who stay home during this time opt for some wine or champagne.
In Spain and in some parts of Latin America, such as Venezuela, Argentina, and Uruguay, firework displays are common post-mass. These are accompanied by processions, villancicos, dinner, and the opening of gifts.
A traditional Spanish Christmas dinner is pavo trufado de Navidad (turkey stuffed with truffles). In the Dominican Republic, fruits that not generally available year round—such as apples and grapes—are eaten and therefore associated with the Christmas season. In Mexico, as well as Spain, the famous stuffed cake with a hidden Jesus figurine, la rosca de Reyes—or el roscón de reyes, as it is known in Spain—is eaten on Three Kings Day. Other foods include traditional empanadas, pasteles, meat, and seafood. The traditional (and delicious) Christmas dessert, turrón—a honey- and toasted-almond confection—is not to be missed!
The pesebres, or nativity scenes, are commonly found under the Christmas trees of most Latin American and Spanish families, both abroad and in the United States. But these scenes are not limited to the Christmas tree. They can be elaborate and depict scenery including homes, mountains, and rivers. In countries like Ecuador, for example, there are even nativity scene competitions. Beyond its religious symbolism—including being a place for prayer—the actual setup of the pesebre can be a fun activity for children, who in Catalonia are asked to find the hidden…
You probably know about the elf on the shelf, but have you heard of the caganer? Literally meaning “crapper,” the caganer is a defectating figurine found under many nativity scenes in Catalonia, other parts of Spain, and even Italy and France. It has received both support and criticism. After public defecation and urination became officially illegal in Catalonia, the government depicted a nativity scene without the caganer. Widespread criticism ensued. The caganer was back in the scene in 2006.
What is the best part about Christmas? Don’t say the presents! Most children don’t receive presents on Christmas. The tradition is for them to open gifts on Three Kings Day, as Jesus did. However, in many countries, people do open gifts or have gift exchanges called angelitos (little angels). Such is the case in the Dominican Republic.
Kids in Latin America and Spain love Three Kings Day, also known as Epiphany, an homage to the three wise and distinguished men who followed the Star of Bethlehem and are believed to have found Jesus Christ on this day, January 6th, and offered him gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. On the night before El Día de los Reyes Magos, as it is called, children leave shoes or shoes boxes (not stockings!) out for the wise men. In the morning, they find treats, presents, and candy stuffed into the footwear. Unfortunately, if you’ve been really bad that year, you might find charcoal!
December 28th is Día de los Santos Inocentes or Day of the Holy Innocents. Despite this being the day to commemorate the Massacre of the Innocents, the biblical account of infanticide when Herod the Great ordered all children of Bethlehem under two years old to be killed in order to do away with Jesus, this day is very much like April Fools Day in the U.S. and the UK. People play all kinds of jokes on one another, calling each other inocente. Even the news media plays jokes on its audience!
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Irma is a trained linguist, native Spanish speaker, and teacher. She is the founder and CEO of Diáfano.
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