December 13, 2021
With the festive season upon us, here at Uncover South America we wanted to share the unique traditions and celebrations that take place around South America and which make it a unique place to spend your holidays in, all while discovering a new culture. Each of these countries have a special way of celebrating the season and bringing the magic into their homes.
In Peru, Christmas has been celebrated since 1535 with the majority of the population being of Catholic faith. Here, like in most parts of South America, Christmas is celebrated on the night of the 24th of December where families head to church in the evening before coming back home to continue the festivities. Houses are decorated in a variety of lights and colours with a big emphasis on the creation of the crib, known as pesebre, which are often made out of either wood or clay. The Christmas dinner features the traditional turkey but also more local dishes such as tamales and pachamanca.
The city of Cusco has one of the biggest Christmas markets in the region called Santuranticuy which is held in the centre of the town. The market is known for its tradition of helping people build detailed and sometimes extravagant pesebres with many sellers offering different kinds of decorations to suit your tastes. Visitors can browse through the stalls with hot rum while admiring the different wares. In some Andean regions, families actually celebrate and exchange gifts on the 6th of January, on the day of the arrival of the Wise Men also known as Epiphany.
Many towns in Peru are known for their high upbeat New Year’s celebration with lots of fireworks, champagne and dancing. However, Peruvians also have a lot of traditions and superstitions when it comes to welcoming the New Year and making sure that you start it on an auspicious foot. One of these traditions is placing three potatoes under your chair - one peeled, one half-peeled and one unpeeled. At midnight, without looking you pick one of the potatoes and depending on the one you choose, it will define the year ahead. A peeled potato means bad financial luck, half-peeled is meant to indicate a normal and safe year ahead and finally an unpeeled potato indicates a very prosperous year ahead.
In Costa Rica, Christmas dinner is the most important part of the celebration with the whole family gathering to share in a large feast. The meal consists most often of a roast pork with rice and side dishes such as tamales, mashed potatoes and vegetables. For dessert, the most famous one is the tres lèches cake and is often accompanied by their own version of eggnog called rompope that is made with rum punch.
The Festival de la Luz takes place during the second week of December and marks the start of the Christmas festivities. The streets of San José are decorated with a large number of lights that completely transforms the city into a brightly coloured attraction. On the second Saturday of the month, large floats with multi-coloured lights parade down the streets to loud Latin music. The Tope Nacional de Caballos takes place on the 26th of December and is a national horse parade. Horsemen from all around Costa Rica come to take part in the festivities and show off their riding skills, it is an awe-inspiring sight to see as many as 3000 horses and their riders in uniform trot down the streets. The festivities don’t end here, on the 27th of December is the Carnival Nacional where more colourful floats drift down Avenida Segundo and Paseo Colón to the delight of children and adults alike.
Unlike other places around the world, the New Year’s Eve celebrations are a much more family orientated affair in Costa Rica. In fact, most restaurants and bars close by midnight to allow families to gather and ring in the new year together. Many families head to the beach to watch the fireworks together as these are the highlight of the evening festivities. Just like in Peru, families here have many traditions when bringing in the New Year such as wearing yellow underwear to bring good luck and walking with a suitcase around your house or street to attract a lot of travel in the new year. Something we could definitely get behind!
Chileans celebrate Christmas on the 24th evening also known as Noche Buena with many celebrations reminiscent of Western traditions. As Chile is located in the Southern Hemisphere, it gets very hot during the month of December therefore many households opt for either fake or incredibly original trees to decorate their houses with. Turkey takes pride of place here for the Christmas dinner with lots of various local vegetables. As a sweet treat, Pan de Pascua is a traditional bread made during the Christmas season, similar to fruitcake. A doughy bread filled with candied fruits and nuts with lots of cinnamon and nutmeg; it is a staple of the season and many households. Instead of eggnog, Chileans drink a traditional beverage called cola de mono which means ‘monkey’s tail’ and is made with Spanish alcohol aguardiente, coffee, milk, sugar and cloves.
Chileans celebrate the New Year with large barbecues thanks to the warm weather of the Southern Hemisphere. These barbecues consist of large varieties of meats to suit everyone's needs and liking. Just like in Costa Rica, Chileans like to wear colourful underwear particularly yellow to bring in luck for the upcoming year. They also eat three spoons of lentils at the stroke of midnight to bring in love, health and wealth respectfully.
In Ecuador, the 24th of December is the most celebrated day of the season. The day starts with the Pase del Niño where each city and town see local residents carry a statue or image of baby Jesus through the streets often accompanied by locals dressed as Mary, Joseph and the Three Wise Men as they make their way through the streets with lots of traditional music. Here the traditional Christmas meal is a roast suckling pig! If you have a sweet tooth, you will be happy to know that Ecuador is known for the preparation of buñuelos which are deep-fried balls of dough that are then covered in a dark cane syrup. Ambato, a town in the centre of Ecuador, is best known for these deep fried delights, so much so that they even have a festival that takes place in December.
New Year’s Eve in Ecuador is particular as they celebrate the end of the year by burning effigies of popular figures and icons of the año viejo (old year) as a symbolic cleansing of the last 12 months. The men of Ecuador also participate in Viudas which means ‘Widow of the old year’ and subsequently dress in drag complete with high heels and wigs before going out into the streets, stopping cars and people while asking for change. The money collected will then be collected by each community for a celebration that evening.
Paraguay is a deeply religious country like most of the South American countries. A large importance is placed on the midnight mass on the 24th of December and all the churches are extensively decorated with lights and lots of flowers. The Christmas meal takes place after the Misa del Gallo where traditional food such as grilled ribs, yuca, chipa guazu, poroto and yopara are served. As it is very warm, instead of the conventional eggnog, a drink called Clerico is served which consists of diced up fruit with juice and wine added to it.
New Year’s Eve is celebrated in the streets in Paraguay and many festivals are held in cities and towns that spill onto the roads. Families also create a life sized human made out of papier-mâché and dressed similarly to a scarecrow which is then burnt at midnight.
We hope you enjoyed this first instalment of this two-part series on the Christmas celebrations across South America. Next week, we will share the Christmas celebrations and traditions of Colombia, Brazil, Bolivia and many more for even more festive cheer and more importantly to fuel your travel plans for the upcoming new year.
Do get in touch with us by email or phone to start planning your 2021 travel so that you too can start the year on a good foot.