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Familiar and exotic South American Christmas traditions

Published December 22, 2014 by Nick Dall

Known as Navidad in Spanish and Natal in Brazil, Christmas is a Christian tradition and nowhere has more devout Christians than South America. Every December all sorts of religious (and not-so religious) activities take place under the searing South American summer sun. Some of what goes on is pretty similar to what you’d see in Europe or North America (beach weather aside) while some is uniquely South American. And then there are those traditions which are peculiar to only one country.
Nativity scenes
Known as nacimientos or pesebres in Spanish and as ‘presépios’ in Brazilian Portuguese, nativity scenes are extremely popular in churches and homes throughout the continent. It is common for families to go from church to church admiring the different displays. In Andean regions real moss is often used as foliage – this is bought from impoverished campesinos who collect it high in the mountains.
Traditionally the baby Jesus is only added to the scene after midnight mass on the 24 of December. Until recent years the pesebre was by far the most common form of Christmas decoration in South America, but nowadays Christmas trees fake snow and reindeer are rearing their heads.

Christmas pesebre olinda
A presépio in front of a church in Olinda, Brazil.


Chocolotada
Something which is pretty much unique to Peru is the chocolotada, where businesses, schools and well-off families give hot chocolate, bread, sweets and perhaps a small gift to those less fortunate than themselves. Chocolate was an important sacrament in pre-Colombian ceremonies, and thus is its sacred character preserved. Rural campesinos flock to regional centers like Cusco for the chocolotadas and to sell produce, livestock…and even moss!

Big Tree Sau Paulo Denise Mayumi
The giant Christmas tree in Sau Paulo. Picture: Denise Mayumi)


Bumper to bumper traffic…and deserted avenidas
It is a great irony that while the streets of Buenos Aires are hauntingly deserted over the festive period (every man and his dog relocates to the coast, to avoid the stifling heat of the city) the roads of Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro in Brazil become cripplingly overcrowded, especially at night.
These two cities both put up very famous Christmas trees, you see, and families flock to see them – in their cars of course. Weirdly, being stuck in traffic seems to be half the fun for Brazilians, and the gridlock often continues well into the small hours, especially over weekends.
Where’s the turkey?
If they can afford it South Americans all enjoy a Christmas feast (usually on Christmas Eve) but what they eat varies widely from country to country and from region to region. My first Christmas in South America was in Argentina, and I ate rabbit stewed in white wine. My next one was in Santa Cruz de la Sierra in Bolivia where we roasted an entire pig. Since then I’ve had asado (barbecue) and cazuela, a traditional Chilean stew. I have also had turkey, although you should certainly not expect to see this on the menu: the big bird is eaten by well-to-do families across Peru (and, to a lesser extent, other countries).
Most South American countries have some kind of Christmas cake (panettone, pan dulce, pristiños) and they all seem to drink sidra (a very rough apple cider) at this time of the year. Depending on where you find yourself, local beer or wine is probably a better bet!

Christmas Cusco Carsten ten Brink
Modern Christmas decorations in Cusco, Peru. (Picture: Carsten ten Brink)


No Santa Claus…
Like all children in predominantly Christian parts of the world, South American kids receive gifts from a mystery gift-giver, although the exact identity of the giver and the date, time and manner of the gifts’ delivery varies hugely from country to country. Papá Noel (Argentina, Peru, Bolivia) or Papai Noel (Brazil) is as close as you’ll get to a like-for-like replacement for Santa Claus, although he usually gives his presents on Christmas Eve (Noche Buena) and in many cases only visits the less traditional families…except for Peru where he services the entire country.
Some uber-traditional families throughout the continent receive their gifts from Baby Jesus (El Niño Dios) himself while Chileans get their loot from Viejito Pascuero and Brazilians are treated by Bom Velhinho – the ‘Good Old Man’.
These days most gifts are exchanged on Noche Buena although in more traditional families (and countries) they wait until 6 January for the Bajada de Reyes which commemorates the arrival of the three kings bearing their world-famous gifts.
Fireworks
Fireworks are a big deal around Christmas and New Year’s, the louder and more dangerous the better. Regulations are not what they should be and scores of people, especially children, are injured (or worse) every year. Not to mention the trauma the continent’s dogs and cats are put through.
Midnight mass
Affectionately known as Misa de Gallo (Spanish) or Missa do Galo (Portuguse) because families usually return home in the early hours when the cock is already crowing, midnight mass is a big deal throughout South America. The whole family attends mass – babies and toddlers included – and when they finally get home it’s time to add Baby Jesus to the nativity scene.
Credit to Sandi who took the cover photo for this post on Copacabana beach!