“Esta Noche Es Noche Buena, Y NO Es Noche De Dormir”
CHRISTMAS CELEBRATIONS IN THE SPANISH SPEAKING WORLD
The prototype for Christmas celebrations in the Spanish speaking world eminates from
Spain and is closely linked to Catholicism. Christmas in Spain is first and foremost
a religious holiday. It tends to feel more devout and less commercialized than in
other western countries, although this is may be changing. The Christmas season
begins on December 8th with the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Other important
dates include Nochebuena (Christmas Eve) on December 24th, and the Feast of the Epiphany
on January 6th.
Although Spain may be the traditional center of the Spanish speaking world, Central
and South America are more populous. In the Southern Hemisphere, Christmas occurs
in the summertime. For a person from the United States, Christmas in South America
might feel like an Independence Day celebration. There are a lot of fireworks involved,
and families might even go to the beach on Christmas Day.
Below are descriptions of important elements of the Christmas holiday as celebrated
in the Spanish speaking world. Aftewards, there is a list of unique Christmas traditions
Dia de la Inmaculada Concepcion (December 8th, The Immaculate Conception)
The season begins on December 8th with the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Around
this time, families will display Pesebres, or nativity scenes. There is a common
misconception that the Immaculate Conception refers to the virgin birth of Jesus
by Mary. In actuality, The Immaculate Conception refers to the birth of Mary by
her mother Saint Anne.
La Noche Buena (December 24th / Christmas Eve)
Christmas Eve is traditionally celebrated with a midnight mass. This mass is sometimes
referred to as Misa del Gallo, or the Misa de los Pastores. The midnight mass comes
at the conclusion of nine previous days of celebration and prayer known as the posadas
or novenas. In the Spanish speaking world, Christmas Eve generally takes on greater
importance than Christmas Day. Families gather together to share a meal. At midnight
there are fireworks, and small gifts for the children.
Dia de la Navidad (December 25th / Christmas Day)
In the Spanish speaking world the primary Christmas celebration happens on Christmas
Eve. Christmas Day is a calm, tranquil day. In Spain, more modern families might
even go out to eat at a restaurant. In Central and South America, it is a day for
picnics and going to the beach.
Dia de los Santos Inocentes (Dec. 28th / Day of the Holy Innocents, Childermas)
December 28th is the Feast of the Holy Innocents. During the time of Christ, Bethlehem
was ruled by Herod, the Roman appointed King of Judea (Israel). The Three Wise Men
visited Herod and told him of the birth of the Christ Child in Bethlehem as foretold
by Old Testament prophecy. Prophecy claimed the child would grow to become King
of the Jews. Herod was a jealous King, and ordered that all young male babies in
Bethlehem be slaughtered.
Over time, the day has shifted from being one of mourning to a celebration of children.
In a sort of gallows humor, the day have evolved into one of simple pranks similar
to what might be seen on April Fool's Day.
La Epifanía / Día de los Reyes Magos (January 6th, The Epiphany / Three Kings' Day)
On January 6th, the Epiphany is celebrated in remembrance of the Christ Child's manifestation
to the gentiles as represented by the Three Kings, or Wise Men. According to tradition
Gaspar, Melchor and Baltasar traveled to visit the baby Jesus guided on their way
by the Star of David. Each Wise Man represented a different part of the world: Europe,
Asia, and Africa respectively. They rode a horse, a camel, and an elephant. As
gifts, the Kings brought gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Traditionally, in the Spanish
speaking world Three King's Day is the day gifts are exchanged. Children leave out
their shoes for the Wise Men to fill with toys. Children may also leave water, grass
and grain under their beds for the Wise Men's camels.
La Posada, is a religious procession that recreates Joseph's and Mary's the search
for lodging in Bethlehem immediately preceding the birth of the Christ Child. During
the procession, participants travel from house to house to imitate the Holy Family's
attempt to find shelter. In some parts of Latin America, these processions may run
nightly for nine days before Christmas.
Novena de Aguinaldos
Nine days of prayer preceding the Christmas celebration. The period begins December
16th and runs through Midnight on December 24th. The nine days mirror the nine months
that the Virgin Mary carried the Christ Child during her pregnancy. It is celebrated
principally in Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador.
Pesebres, Portales, Nacimiento
Nativity or manger scenes depicting the Holy Family: Joseph, Mary, and the Baby
Jesus. Frequently, the Christ Child is not added to the scene until midnight on
December 24th. Frequently, farm animals are added to the scene to emphasis the humble
birth of Jesus. Sometimes the Star of David will be added to show that Christ's
birth was the fullfillment of Old Testament prophecy.
In Argentina, like the rest of the southern hemisphere, Christmas occurs in the summertime.
For a person from the United States of America, Christmas in Argentina might feel
like an American July 4th, Independence Day celebration. On Christmas Eve in Argentina
family and friends gather. The religious attend church services. At midnight, children
open gifts and there are fireworks. Christmas day is celebrated with picnics and
barbeques. Favorite Christmas foods include Pan Dulce (bread filled with candies)
and sidra (cider). On Christmas Day there is an abundance of iced drinks to combat
the summer heat. A typical entree might include roast peacock brilliantly garnished
with its own feathers or Nino Envuettas; rolled squares of steak, filled with meat,
spices, hard-boiled eggs and onions.
Employers give employees a "Canastón". A Canaston is a basket filled with basic
food products like bread, sugar, rice, biscuits etc. The Three Kings bring gifts
for the children of Bolivia. On the night before Epiphany, children place letters
in their shoes for the Three Kings. "Natilla" and "Buñuelos" are Christmas time
specialities. Natilla is a custard made from corn starch. Buñuelos are cheese filled
As a South American country we have included Brazil although its national language
is Portuguese. In Brazil the gift bringer is called Papai Noel or Bom Velhinho (Good
Old Man). In Northern Brazil, the play Los Pastores is a holiday favorite. The
play tells the story of a gypsy that attempts to kidnap the Christ Child and the
shepherdesses that thwart the attempt. Christmas foods includeFarofa, a manioc
flour roasted with butter, salt, bacon, and spices. Codfish, French toast, Brazil
nut, and Panettone are seasonal favorites.
El Viejo Pascuero (Old Man Christmas) is the gift bringer. "Cola de Mono" or "Monkey's
Tail" is a popular Chilean drink. Ingredients includes aguardiente, rum, coffee,
milk and anise. Christmas Eve meal often includes cazuela de ave (chicken cazuela),
a type of chicken soup filled with potatoes, onions, and corn on the cob.
Dia de las Velitas, or Day of Little Candles is the start of Christmas Observance
in Colombia. It is celebrated on December 7th, on the eve of the Immaculate Conception.
The day is celebrate by displaying candles and paper laterns on sidewalks, porches,
In Colombian, families commemorate the nine months of the Virgin Mary's pregnancy.
For nine days before Christmas, beginning on December 16th and running through midnight
on December 24th, families gather to pray and sing. The tradition is known as the
Novena de Aguinaldos.
Traditionally, El Niño Jesus bring the gifts. The Santa Claus tradition is gaining
popularity however. God parents may bring gift on the Ephinany. Typical foods include
Buñuelos served with natilla or manjar blanco. Also, hojaldres, which are something
like a puff pastry or phyllo dough.
Costa Ricans display Nativity scenes called portales that are decorated with bright
tropical fruits and flowers. The traditional Costa Rican Christmas tree in a cypress.
In Costa Rica, the Christmas season is a time for Topes, or horse parades, and Bullfights.
The traditional Christmas food is tamales.
After the Communist takeover in 1962, Cuba officially became an atheist nation. Castro
believed that Christmas interfered with the sugar harvest so he outlawed the holiday.
Castro allowed Christmas celebrations to resume in 1997 to honor a visit by Pope
John Paul II. The Cuban people were quick to rembrace Christmas. A highlight of
Christmas celebrations in Cuba are Parrandas, or street parties. These began back
in the 18th Century as way to boost attendance at Midnight Mass. The Parrandas have
a carnival feel. At Christmas, Cubans enjoy Crema de Vie, which is similar to eggnog,
and consists of condensed milk, rum, sugar syrup, lemon rind, cinnamon, and egg yolk.
The oldest cathedral in the Americas is located in Santo Domingo. It is named the
Cathedral of Santa Maria la Menor. Construction on the Cathedral began in 1512,
and was completed in 1540. The Cathedral of Santa Maria hosts the most elaborate
masses in the country at Christmas time. When not attending Services, people in
the Dominican Republic celebrate Christmas like an American on Superbowl Sunday except
with more fireworks. Traditional Christmas dishes include Puerco Asada, pan telera,
pasteles de hojas, root tamales, and ginger tea.
On Christmas Day in rural areas, the indigenious people that staff the local ranches
and farms will parade down from the highlands dressed in colorful garb and riding
llamas. Employers will give employees gifts. Roast lamb and brown sugar bread make
up the traditional Christmas meal.
In Early December Families setup nativities scenes, however the Christ Child is not
added until after midnight on Christmas Day. There are Estrellitas, or fireworks
to signal the symbolic birth of the baby Jesus. More modern families might enjoy
a dinner of turkey or ham. Chicken or tamales are traditional.
The Christmas tree has joined the nacimiento (nativity) as a popular decoration because
of the influence of the German population in Guatemala. Parents and adults exchange
on New Year's Day. Turkey, bunuelos, tamales, and ponche (fruit punch) are popular
menu items at Christmas.
Honduras celebrates with lots of fireworks, pork, tamales, and aguardiente (fire
water), a strongly alcoholic beverage.
There are poinsettias flowers everywhere. Legend has it that a young boy was walking
to church to view the town's nativity scene. He had no offering to bring and so
in a moment of improvisation he gathered a cluster of green branches. The other
children at the church teased him for his humble offering. Miraculously though,
when the boy place the branches on the altar of the church red flowers began to bloom.
In the weeks leading up to Christmas puestos (market stalls) appear all around the
local plaza of every city and town. These stalls sale all kinds of artisan foods
and folk crafts.
On Christmas day children break a decorated clay pinata. Presents are also given
on the Feast of the Epiphany by the Three Wise Men.
On December 7, the people of Nicaragua celebrate La Griteria (The Shoutings), in
honor of the Virgin Mary. There is singing in the streets, neighbors visit one another
to share food and drinks, and exchange small gifts. The traditional christmas dish
is the nactamale, the Nicaraguan version of the tamale wrapped in plaintain leaves.
Christmas is the start of summer in Panama. Christmas Day features a carnival like
parade and fireworks. At Panama City Beach there is a boat parade.
In Paraguay, the traditional Christmas meal includes Chipa made from cassava, and
a soup called Bori Bori.
Quechua Indians are known for hand carving beautiful wood nativity scenes. In the
capital Lima, Christmas Day is celebrated with a procession including a statute of
the Virgin Mary. For the nine day preceding Christmas, the Mass of the Carols is
held every morning at 5:30 a.m. House to house Christmas caroling is popular.
At Christmas time, the people of Puerto Rico give a nod towards their agricultural
roots. Regular city folk will play the role of the "jibaros", or farmer peasant,
by wearing a straw hat called a "pava." There is also the custom of "parranda," which
is something akin to Christmas caroling. Family and friends surprise neighbors with
music and singing, and in return are invited in for a meal. A favority holiday drink
is Coquito is an eggnog like beverage made from coconut milk.
In Spain, Christmas can still be a deeply religious holiday. At the gothic cathedral
in Seville, the season begins with an annual ceremony called Los Seises, or "Dance
of the Six." The holiday often include swinging. Towns and villages setup swing
sets and young people will swing in time with music and singing. In a tradition
that predates Christmas, bonfires are built to celebrate the winter solstice and
participants will jump over the fires to ward off illness. On December 22, El Gordo
(the Fat One), the world's largest lottery in held. On December 28th, young boys
are giving the "keys" to their local town, and for a day are allowed to act as "mayor"
ordering townsfolk to sweep the streets or pay a "fine." The most famous of Spanish
Christmas delights is turron, a kind of almond candy. Other Christmas foods include
yema, an egg based dessert, mantecados, crumbly cakes, and King cake.
Christmas is officially known as "Día de la Familia" (Family's Day). However, most
Uruguayans call December 25th "Navidad" (Christmas) and celebrate the night before
(December 24th) "Nochebuena" (Christmas' Eve). January 6th, The Epiphany is also
celebrated. Family dinner, fireworks and presents are the norm. And then, more
fireworks. Crowds flock to beach resorts like Punta del Este.
At bedtime, children will tie a long piece of string to their big toe. The other
end of the string is hung out their bedroom window. Early the next morning, the
people of the town join in a collective roller skating party. The skaters will gently
tug on any string they see hanging out a window to summon the children to join the
party. On the Epiphany, Children will wake to presents left by The Three Kings.
The children know that The Three Kings came to visit because if they look in the
mirror they will see a black smudge left by Balthazar, King of the Ethiopians, who
kissed them in their sleep.
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