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Christmas in Latin America: Traditions, Food & Decorations

Instructor: Brittney Clere

Brittney, a National Board Certified Teacher, has taught social studies at the middle school level for 15 years.

Have you ever taken a couple of whacks at a pinata before? If so, did you imagine you were eliminating sin, or were you just focused on the candy inside? In this lesson, we will look closer at this, and other Christmas traditions, celebrated in Latin America.

Christmas in Latin America

Christmas is perhaps the biggest religious holiday celebrated all over the world. However, not everyone who celebrates Christmas considers it a religious holiday. That is not usually the case in Latin America, though, as the population of this region includes the highest percentage of Catholics in the world. So, it should be no surprise that religion plays a huge part in many of their Christmas traditions.

Latin America
Latin America

Popular Traditions

Most of the Christmas rituals in Latin America begin on December 16th. This nine-day period represents Mary's pregnancy and the events leading up to Jesus's birth. Colombia is an exception to this as their Christmas season begins on December 7th with Dia de las Velitas, or Day of the Little Candles, marking the eve of the Immaculate Conception. The ritual of this day is for Colombians to fill their homes and streets with hundreds of candles.

Nativity Scenes

Nativity scenes, or nacimientos, are the most popular tradition in Latin America. These scenes depict the story of Jesus's birth, based on the accounts given in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.

Nativity scene
Nativity

The nativities are often quite elaborate with handmade figures. Some even have life-size figures, while others are small enough to set on a mantle or under the Christmas tree.

Other traditions have developed from this custom, too. One example is the tradition of not including the baby Jesus in the scene until Christmas night. Another has people coming together around a nativity each night to sing traditional village songs and pray to Mary, Joseph, and Jesus.

Mass

Misas, or mass, is another popular religious tradition. Church pews overflow on Christmas Eve as people attend a Midnight Mass. In Venezuela, however, mass is held every day of the Christmas season, starting at 5:30 a.m.

Posadas

Posadas are practiced in a variety of ways. The word posada refers to lodgings or shelter, and the ritual centers on the story of Mary and Joseph's attempts to find shelter for the night.

In Puerto Rico, the posada processions have Christmas carolers going from house to house, while in Mexico and Guatemala, groups parade through town, knocking on doors, and asking for lodging as they sing and chant songs.

Some posada processions are very elaborate and include a person dressed as Mary riding a donkey and people playing musical instruments. When the group representing Joseph and Mary are allowed in, they all enter the home and sing together in unison, or gather around the Nativity to pray.

Piñatas

It is probably no surprise that piñatas are part of a Latin American Christmas, but did you know that originally, whacking the paper mache object was about receiving God's forgiveness, not candy and treats?

The first piñatas were shaped like a star with seven points, which symbolized the seven deadly sins. Hitting the piñata represented the person getting rid of their sins. Once it busted, the candy and treats that fell from it symbolized the receiving of God's forgiveness and His blessings.

A seven pointed star pinata.
Pinata

Gifts

Gifts are given, but by who is the question. Some follow the idea of Santa, a fairly new tradition, while others have kept the traditional ideas of Baby Jesus or the Three Wise Men being the gift givers.

There is also the question of when they receive them. In some countries, gifts are received at midnight on Christmas Eve, but in others, they wait until Christmas morning. Still other customs have them waiting until New Year's Day, or maybe even later.

Decorations

Streets of Latin America are brightly decorated with Christmas lights, poinsettias, and Christmas trees. On Christmas Eve, people venture out to watch the skies light up with fireworks.

In the homes, decorated Christmas trees are common but not the central decorative piece. That is usually reserved for the nativity scene.

Because Latin America is typically sunny and hot, some make efforts to create a more winter wonderland type of atmosphere. Countries, like Chile and Brazil, even go so far as to use fake snow.

Food

Like most cultures, Christmas celebrations in Latin America include large get-togethers with lots of food. To get started, adults can get festive with a traditional mixed drink, such as coquito, an eggnog with rum, and ponche, a fruit drink spiked with brandy or rum.

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