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News > Latin America

Christmas in Latin America and the Caribbean: A Meaningful Mosaic of Traditions

  • Nativity Scene made by Enedina Amezquita in Lynwood, California, Dec. 24, 2019.

    Nativity Scene made by Enedina Amezquita in Lynwood, California, Dec. 24, 2019. | Photo: EFE

Published 24 December 2019

Music, color, joy, and cultural diversity are the most outstanding features of Christmas in this region.

Latin America and the Caribbean are rich in cultures. From one country to another, and even from one city to the next, traditions can vary significantly because each people incorporates its local history and preferences into them. In this diversity, however, some common themes generate shared identities.

The Nativity Scene (El Pesebre)

Since the arrival of the Spanish in 1492, Catholicism has been the predominant religion in Latin America. Therefore, it is not surprising that the most widespread Christmas tradition is the construction of the Nativity scene, a tradition that Francis of Assisi promoted in the 13th century when he mounted a representation of the birth of Jesus with living characters.

Once the Franciscan priests arrived in the Americas, they also promoted the construction of manger-based decorations as a way of claiming a celebration based on values such as poverty and simplicity.


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The Nativity scene consists of an exhibition of figurines representing the place where Jesus was born. It usually includes the newborn baby and his parents as well as shepherds, donkeys, cows, and sheep.

In the Latin American folk culture, however, Pesebres also include what families consider worthy of being exhibited in their small artworks.

This preference turns their Nativity scenes into montages of objects, which could include small planes, cars, trains or other objects that children might like.

Christmas Advent Prayer (La Novena)

The Nativity scene provides a place where other traditions are also performed. One of them is the Christmas advent prayer called “The Novena,” which is a ritual consisting of nine-successive days of night prayers that start from December 16th.

Catholic families gather to pray and sing songs related to the birth of Jesus. After each prayer session, participants ingest food or drinks specially prepared for the occasion.

This tradition is very popular in Colombia, Peru, and Ecuador, countries in which even institutions usually allow people to perform brief advent prayer ceremonies throughout the morning.

In some places, it is also customary to "lulling the baby" at midnight on December 24th when the baby Jesus statue is carried in the arms of family members, who lull the newborn for a few minutes.

Lodging the baby (Las Posadas)

In Mexico, Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and other Central American countries, families carry out “Las Posadas”, which is a performance representing how the parents of Jesus traveled from one place to another looking for a place to stay temporarily.

In these countries, people improvise a small procession in which two persons dressed up as Mary and Joseph transport a baby Jesus statue from one house to another, looking for a family to provide him accommodation for one day.

As they move through the streets, performers sing litanies asking for shelter given that the holy baby needs a place to be born.

“In Heaven’s name, I beg you for lodging, for my beloved wife cannot walk anymore. Don’t be inhuman and have mercy on us,” the pilgrims sing outside the house expected to open its doors.

Once the statue enters into his temporary lodge, the host family and their guests kneel around the Nativity scene and pray the Rosary. This ritual is repeated for nine nights.

On the last day of the tour, families hold a special party for children in which they break star-shaped piñatas. On Dec. 24, however, Mexican families do not give gifts to children as the date to do so is January 6, the Three Wise Men’s Day.

The Carols (Los Villancicos)

Although they come from the Spanish "Villancicos", which means “small town” songs, Christmas songs have acquired very particular meanings in Latin America. In some cases, carols have become symbols of a nation.

Besides evoking the tradition of Christianity, carols provided opportunities for the fusion of European and Indigenous rhythms during colonial times.

As a result, the Christmas songs acquired the musical and lyrical nuances generated by local rhythms such as the chacareras (Argentina), the bambuco (Colombia), and San Juanito (Ecuador).

"We have been able to enjoy the Pastorelas, Carols, and dances with our family and friends. Merry Christmas."

Latin American peoples have also expressed their desires and feelings through iconic songs that reflected much more than religious motives.

One of the most famous of them is the "Christ of Palacaguina", a song whose verses witness the Nicaraguans’ struggle against the Somoza dictatorship (1936-1979).

Through this song, his author, Carlos Mejia Godoy, imagines how the holy baby’s birth would be like today and what the boy might do when he grew up.

The Caribbean is set for the Junkanoo

Starting on the night of December 25, an explosion of color, music, and joy invades the streets in many English-speaking Caribbean islands.

The time has come for the Junkanoo, a popular festival and street parade that mixes customs from Indigenous cultures and African-descendent peoples.

“Lush and massive troupes dressed in colorful and imaginative costumes take to the streets dancing to the sound of musicians and their hypnotic rhythms, amid a cacophony of cowbells, whistles, and drums,” Karin Mallet, from the Bahamas Tourist Office, said.

The festival was named after "John Canoe", an African chief who demanded the right of slaves to rest for three days at Christmas, which they did by performing vigorous dances without stopping for hours.

In the Caribbean islands, the Christmas folk music is “The Parang”, which was first brought to Trinidad and Tobago by Venezuelan and Colombian migrants in colonial times.

“These migrants were primarily of Amerindian, Mestizo, Pardo, Cocoa Payol, and African heritage. This mix of ethnicities is strongly reflected in the music itself,” as reported by local media Caribbean Life.

Over time, the Parang, whose name comes from the Spanish word “parranda” (party), spread to Grenada, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Barbados, Guyana, Trinidad and other Caribbean islands where “English is spoken but Christmas is celebrated in Spanish.”​​​​​​​

An aesthetic that blends to resist

Songs, decorations or costumes are also vehicles through which the Indigenous and African-descent peoples have resisted violence against them. In Latin America, Christmas does not only carries the traditional religious connotation.

Taking advantage of these holidays, for example, some Peruvian Quechua peoples thank their Mother Earth by offering food and drink to her.

In the Cauca Valley, the Colombian Indigenous peoples choose their authorities through rituals carried out in sacred, ecological places.​​​​​​​

"From far away from Chile, I wish that love and struggle come together, that ​​​​​​​they embrace the front line and that we spend this Christmas on alert. The meme reads, “Merry and combative Christmas! May dignity become customary. May peace and love reach your family and you.”

This is so because the holidays the conquerors brought with them coincide with the Summer Solstice, a particularly important moment for agricultural peoples who did not renounce their millenary beliefs.

The resilience of the Latin American peoples has an aesthetic dimension, which stubbornly complies with the Western canons and morals.

This can be seen every time a sheep is bigger than a Wise Man at the Nativity scene or when Christmas cards talk about what the Chilean violent rulers do not want to be known.

Latin America and the Caribbean are rebellious… even at Christmas.​​​​​​​

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