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Latino Christmas Celebrations

Updated on December 23, 2018
Expat Mamasita profile image

Expat Mamasita lived in El Salvador for 5 years and during this time she travelled widely and wrote about the country's attractions and food


How is Christmas Celebrated in Latin America?

Have you ever wondered what makes up a Latino Christmas, if the celebrations of these predominantly Christian people is any different to your own?

In Latin America, Navidad has many differences yet also increasingly many similarities with how many of us celebrate Christmas. There is a mix of traditional Christian beliefs mixed in with adopted North American customs, with Santa Claus very popular amongst the younger generation.

From the Caribbean to the southernmost tip of the American continent, Christmas for most Latin Americans is a very family orientated and an extremely religious time of year, albeit with a Latin twist.

The biggest difference at Christmas time is the weather. Most of Central and South America enjoys summer weather in December, so Christmas has a totally different feel about it from the cold and snowy northern hemisphere countries.

If you have ever visited a Latin country at fiesta time, you will know that they love vibrant colour, lots of noise and a party. Expect Christmas tunes with a Latin rhythm.

Please join me to discover how a Latino Christmas is celebrated, from Cuba in the Caribbean, through El Salvador in Central America, to Columbia at the northern edge of South america and finally finishing at the southern most tip of the continent in Argentina.

Feliz Navidad!

A Latino Christmas, Cuban Style

Christmas celebrations in Cuba begin on Noche Buena or Christmas Eve, as in other Latin American countries, with families gathering together to have a feast.

For Cubans the centre of the Christmas feast is roasted pig, served with white rice, black beans, white rice, salad and Cuban bread.

The preparations for Christmas begin many days before, with the women preparing desserts, including bunuelos, a fried pastry.

On December 23rd, the festive pig would be slaughtered and prepared and left to marinate overnight, ready to be cooked on Christmas Eve, in readiness for the evening's festivities.

Tradionally, Noche Buena parties would carry on until the early hours of the morning, only interrupted for "misa del gallo" at midnight, which literally translates as Rooster Mass, in honour of the late hour. After mass the partying would continue with dancing, singing and drinking.

In Cuba there is no Santa Claus and children do not receive presents on Christmas Day as they would in the United States. Christmas Day is traditionally a relaxed day where people recover from the festivities of the previous evening. Turkey would be eaten for lunch, but accompanied by black beans and rice.

On the 6th of January, twelfth night and the day of 'Los Reyes Magos', or Three Wise Men many Cubans celebrate by having processions.

Cuban Christmas trees are similar to American ones, but it is common to top the tree with a male angels, in honour of the Archangel Michael.

More important than the tree however, is the Nativity scenes that area an essential part of the holiday in most Cuban homes. These differ to North American nativity scenes because they are usually quite large and contain many different figures.

12 Festive Spanish Words

Dia de Navidad
Christmas Day
Feliz Navidad
Happy Christmas
Christmas Eve
Papa Noel
Father Christmas
El nino Jesu
Baby Jesus
Misa de gallo
Midnight Mass
Un pesebre
Nativity or stable
La Noche de Reye
12th night (5th January)
El dia de reyes
6th January (when gifts are exchanged)
Arbol de Navidad
Christmas Tree
Regalo de Navidad
Christmas present
Papa Noel
Father Christmas

A Latino Christmas, Salvadoran Style

Salvadorans, like most Latin Americans, put their family first at Christmas. Family gatherings start at around 7:00 pm on Christmas Eve, when the family starts arriving at the grandparents house.

An essential part of the celebrations are the fireworks, usually estrellitas, which are lit at midnight. If you are lucky enough to be in El Salvador at midnight on Christmas Eve you will find it difficult to hear yourself speak!

It is also common for children to be involved in a pinata at Christmas, maybe in the neighbourhood where they live. It will be filled with sweets and all the children will get a chance to hit the pinata and share in the sweet rewards.

The Misa de Gallo or Rooster Mass starts at midnight, with some families eating before church and others after. It is becoming common amongst more affluent families to have a traditional turkey and ham dinner, whilst other families enjoy chicken or tamales.

It is traditional is to put the Baby Jesus figure into the nativity scene crib after midnight on Christmas Eve.

Christmas is also traditionally a time when families go to the beach. Although El Salvador is in the northern hemisphere November marks the end of a six month rainy season that is considered to be winter, and in December the weather is beginning to warm up, much like a spring day.

It is a beautiful time of year to visit El Salvador, with the countryside still fresh and green after the rains, clear blue skies and a very pleasant temperature.


A Latino Christmas, Columbian Style

In Columbia, as in the rest of Latin America, Christmas is a very religious time.

At the beginning of December everyone decorates the windows or balconies of their homes, with the compulsory nativity, a Christmas tree, angels, white and red candles and festive lights.

Christmas or "Navidad" preparations begin on December 7th with the celebration of the day of "La Virgen de la Inmaculada Concepcion" or The Virgin of the Immaculate Conception. This day is commonly called 'El Dia de las Velitas', the day of the candles.

'El Dia de las Velitas' is celebrated at dusk by the lighting of thin candles that are placed on long pieces of wood to make illuminated lines in front of houses and buildings. This is also the day that Christmas lights and decorations are put up. The cities of Bogota and Medellin put up millions of lights and city tours of the them are available.

Most Colombian homes have a newly popular Christmas tree and a traditional nativity scene, or pesebre. The nativity is the focal point during Las Novenas, when family and friends gather around it to sing and pray.

Eight days after El Dia de las Velitas the preparation for Christmas continues with Las Novenas. Las Novenas is nine consecutive days of gatherings, feasting and prayers that commemorate the days leading up to Jesus's birth.

The last day of Las Novenas is Nochebuena, or Chrismas Eve. Traditionally gifts are opened after midnight mass when El Nino Jesus has delivered the presents

Then Columbians enjoy to dance, sing villancicos, eat foods like empanadas, and drink the famous Aguardiente, a potent aniseed drink.

Midnight on Christmas Eve is a lot quieter than in many other Latin American countries because fireworks can only be bought or lit by people who have a professional licence. This control was brought about due to the large number of accidents caused by fireworks.


A Latino Christmas, Argentinian Style

If you travel to Argentina at Christmas don't expect to see snow or need your thermals. Because it is situated in the southern hemisphere, Argentine seasons are reversed and Christmas falls in the middle of summer.

Despite the summer heat, Argentine Christmas celebrations include re-enacting scenes from the Nativity, decorating a Christmas tree, exchanging presents and huge family meals.

Christmas dinner is served outdoors during the evening of the 24th December and would usually include roast pork or peacock served with stuffed tomatoes, mince pies and ice cold drinks.

Traditional Argentine Christmas dishes include 'Ninosenvuettas' and 'Parrillada Argentina'. Desserts mainly include local specialities like 'Turrons', a type of candy, and 'Pan Dulce' or 'Panettone', a sweet bread with fruits and nuts on the top .

Argentinians decorate their Christmas trees with 'Papa Noels', lace, flowers, baubles and candles. The nativity scene is usually placed under the tree. A unique Argentine Christmas tradition is the lighting of 'globos' - coloured paper lights that light up the night sky at Christmas time.

The celebrations continue for the twelve days of Christmas, culminating on the evening of January 6 when families gather for a feast and to exchange presents.

Feliz Navidad y Nuevo Ano Prospero!

— Happy Christmas and a Prosperous New Year

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