Feliz Navidad! It’s the most wonderful time of the year again, and that means it’s time for the family to get together once again.
Latinos celebrate Christmas with an array of wonderful customs and traditions. These practices may differ by country, but there are always three things that are present during the holiday: delicious food, joyful music, and good times with family and friends.
El Niño Jesus
The fun starts early in December (or late November, for those eager kids) when Latino children write letters to El Niño Jesus instead of Santa Claus. They place the letters somewhere on the Christmas tree. Moreover, the nativity scene plays a prominent role during Christmas. It is usually placed below the Christmas tree and it can get quite intricate.
Many Hispanics celebrate the nine days leading up to Christmas with posadas, which means “inns.” This celebration entails recreating the pilgrimage of Mary and Joseph trying to find posada or lodging on their way to Bethlehem. People will go from house to house singing carols and inviting those inside to join the procession. This tradition is primarily popular in Mexico.
Hispanics celebrate Nochebuena or Christmas Eve by dancing, eating and going to mass with their families to honor the birth of baby Jesus. The Christmas Eve dinner can take place before or after attending mass. The dinner varies in terms of main course, side dishes and desserts depending on the country’s traditions. Pork, chicken and beef as well as tamales are common entrees in many regions of Latin America. In the Caribbean and Central America, tamales are wrapped in plantain leaves instead of cornhusks and are known by other names such as hallacas or bollos.
Evidently, food plays an indispensable role during Navidad (or Las Pascuas). Each country has its own unique dish. If you are in Mexico, the Pavo (turkey) and the Russian potato salad are bound to be at the dinner table. What’s more, the adoption of the turkey is modeled after the American Christmas and is nowadays adopted as a common dish throughout Latin American Christmas celebrations. In countries like Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, one will find lechón asado, a barbecued pig, as part of the dinner menu. As far as beverage go, egg-based drinks are frequent throughout Latin America during Christmas time. For instance, Venezuela’s ponche crema is popular throughout Mexico, El Salvador and Costa Rica.
Once dinner has ended and you are stuffed with food, that’s your cue to go outside and have some fun. Fireworks of every kind are very popular during this time of year. Kids play with sparklers called chispitas or estrellitas. In Mexico, star-shaped piñatas made out of clay pots are filled with peanuts, candies and fruit for kids (and young-at-heart adults) to enjoy.
Each country has their own villancitos de Navidad, which are basically the Spanish version of Christmas carols. In Maracaibo, Venezuela, they have the traditional folk music, called Gaitas. They are only heard around Christmas time in many regional festivals. In Puerto Rico such Christmas songs are called aguinaldos.
On a different note, one of the many things Hispanics have adapted from the American culture is the practice of playing “Secret Santa” or just giving a present to the person whose name you draw from a hat. This is becoming fairly common amongst big families.Furthermore, Hispanic holiday celebrations continue on to the New Year with Día de Reyes on January 6th, or Three Kings Day. Interestingly enough, even though the Western concept of Santa Claus has gained popularity among Hispanics, traditionally, presents are given on Día de Reyes, not Christmas.
Celebrating Christmas in Venezuela
I still recall my Christmas celebrations back in Venezuela, when my parents used to give the children estrellitas, a little stick that sparks when it is lit, and when all the family, from the oldest to the youngest, came together to make hallacas. However, my all-time favorite traditions occur during New Year’s Eve. In Venezuela, we have very peculiar customs during the last night of the year. One of them is eating 12 grapes as a countdown to the New Year. The fun part is that one must make a wish for the New Year as as one eats each grape. Moreover, there are also plenty of customs for the more superstitious folk. For example, do you wish to travel more in the upcoming year? No problem! Grab a suitcase and walk around with it for a minute or two. Or are you looking for love? Get a chair and stand on it for a few minutes. And finally, are you looking for a prosperous new year, full of lots of riches and money? Easy! Place a $1 bill under your shoe! As silly as these sound, when you’ve become accustomed to these customs, they eventually turn into an indispensable aspect of the holidays. Soon, one starts to realize that Christmas is not quite the same without these crazy traditions!
Disclaimer: These practices must be done at (or after) the strike of the New Year, not before. Hey, don’t ask me, I don’t make the rules.
Mexicans, Colombians, Venezuelans, Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Argentineans, etc. don’t celebrate Christmas the same way. However, as mentioned earlier, celebrating with family, music and food is what makes up a typical Hispanic Christmas tradition.