Christmas and New Years Latin American Style

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Much of the same traditions can be found in many countries due to immigration and religious beliefs, but each country has individual differences exclusive to their native land. South American Christmases are a time of summer celebrations held outside in the warm sun. Nativity scenes, Christmas trees, gift giving and family meals are the focus of their celebrations similar to the United States traditions, but there are many distinctly different customs in each area.
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As a part of our series on Christmas around the world, we are investigating the many ways the Latin American and Spanish celebrate.  Much of the same traditions can be found in many countries due to immigration and religious beliefs, but each country has individual differences exclusive to their native land.  South American Christmases are a time of summer celebrations held outside in the warm sun.  Nativity scenes, Christmas trees, gift giving and family meals are the focus of their celebrations similar to the United States traditions, but there are many distinctly different customs in each area.

Spanish Christmas

The Christmas season begins in Spain on December 8, with a week-long observance of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.  Seville is the center of many of the family destination points, the great cathedral holds a festival in which ten costumed boys perform an ancient dance called Los Seises.  They honor the Virgin Mary, the patron saint of Spain in this tradition.

The holiday adornments for this culture are unique to their area - many balconies in northern Spain feature colorful carpets, flags and flowers.  Life sized nativity scenes called Nacimientos are on display and each home features one as the center of attention.

Celebrations in the streets are a tradition for this country.  Many of the churches feature a marketplace for tambourines, gourd rattles, castanets and miniature guitars.  Singing and dancing in the streets is a big part of their celebration, therefore the instruments provide encouragement to the festivities.  Children visit homes to carol for treats and toys.

Christmas Eve, more formally knows as "La Noche Buena", the Blessed Night involves traditional plays called Las Patores.  It is a depiction of the adoration of the shepherds for the Christ Child.  People fast all-day and then go as a family to midnight mass. Then they return home to enjoy a feast of almond soup, roasted meat, baked red cabbage, and sweet potato or pumpkin.  When the first star shines in the evening sky, people light bonfires, called luminarias, in public squares and outside church walls. At home, each family places a burning candle above the door and lights candles around the nacimiento.

Christmas day is a time for family, similar to most cultures.  The Christ child in the Nacimiento is uncovered in the manger to reenact the birth of long ago.  January 5th is the believed day of the Three Kings who visited the Christ Child, therefore the celebrations continue to include this point in history as well. This is the night children set out their shoes filled with straw for the Three Kings' camels. Gifts are left in the shoes of the good children by these kings.  The next morning is a time of more festivities, family feasts and gift opening.  One of the traditional desserts for this holiday is the Kings' cake, in which a small prize is baked in the cake to be found by the lucky person who will be blessed with good luck all year long.

On the exit of the season, a parade is held in honor of the three kings and their animals called the "Cavalcade of Kings".

Christmas Traditions in Mexico

The Mexican celebration of Christmas is called las posadas, which means lodging.  The dates from December 16th through the 24th are nine days of religious observance based on the nine months that Maria carried Jesus in her womb.  At the center of the celebrations is the focus on Mary and Joseph's difficult journey to Nazareth.  Las Posadas means lodging in spanish, it signifies their search for lodging.

Traditionally, a party is held each night in a neighborhood home. At dusk, a processional is held with children dressed as the characters of the story of Christmas - shepherds, angels, Mary and Joseph.  On the ninth night, "Buena Noche" or Christmas Eve, the procession ends with the bringing of the Christ Child to the Nacimiento at the cathedral.  It is then followed by a midnight mass for everyone.  After mass church bells are rung and fireworks light up the night sky. For the children, a piñata party is held on the first eight evenings of las posadas.  Stars, animals or any object of significance to the holiday are portrayed in papier-mache and filled with candy or small gifts.  Blindfolded children are spun around and given a big stick to find the hidden treasures.

Christmas Day is a time for church and family, similar to many others. Their traditional feasts entail oxtail soup with beans and hot chili, followed by roasted turkey.  Festivities don't end here, January 5th is also recognized in Mexico.  Reyes Magos, the Three Kings leave gifts for the children in their shoes left on the windowsills.  A special feast is held on January 6th, the Twelfth Night supper, in which they feature a kings cake as well.  The special person to receive the tiny baby figure will be responsible for a tamale party on February 2nd, Candlemas Day.  This day marks the end of the Christmas celebrations.

Other South American Country Traditions

Brazil

Like Mexicans, Brazilians feature the play "Los Pastores", but instead of shepherds there are shepherdesses.  The addition of a gypsy, who   attempts to kidnap  the Christ Child, is specific to the Brazilian version. Friends and family members may also take part in these plays. Much of their celebrations are similar to the Mexican tradition.

Chile

"Viejo Pascuero", Old Man Christmas, is believed to bring the gifts to the children. He wishes everyone Feliz Navidad y un Prospero Año Nuevo (a Happy Christmas and a Prosperous New Year).  Similar to the traditional Santa Claus of the United States, Viejo Pascuero travels by sleigh with reindeer.  Although coming down a chimney is not practical in Chile, therefore he enters via a window.  As in all Latin America, the manger scene is the center of festivities, and small clay figurines, "la pesebres", are placed under every Christmas tree.  Christmas Eve is known as "Misa de Gallo", the Mass of the Rooster, which entails a traditional feast of "cazuela de ave", chicken cazuela.  This dish is similar to a chicken soup filled with potatoes, onions and corn on the cob.  Similar to the King's cake they have a bread filled with candies known as "pan de pascua".

Colombia

December 7 marks the beginning of the Christmas festivities, candles are lighted by families in honor of the Virgin Mary.  Church celebrations begin on December 8, the day of the Immaculate Conception.  This is a Colombian National Holiday and a day of Obligation with the church.  Light displays and over 100 candles line the curbs of many homes to bring in the season.  City parks and city streets are lit up as well in recognition of the beginning of the season.

On December 16, Colombian families typically start setting up the Christmas tree. In an effort to ecologically conscious many families choose a fake tree.  Decorations are made up lights and bowls.  Similar to other Latin American traditions the Nativity scenes are the center of attention.  From December 16 through December 24, families usually gather together at night around Nativity scenes to pray and sing carols in the Novena de Aguinaldos.  Christmas Eve family members and neighbors gather to celebrate - the  traditional foods include: ajiaco (a soup with potatoes), chicken and natilla (a corn based dessert) and buñuelos.  At midnight, gifts are exchanged and wishes are made.

El Niño Jesus, the Christ Child, is believed to be the one who brings the gifts.  Present day has been much influenced by the traditional Santa Claus as well.  Christmas morning continues the gift giving, by children waking to gift left at the foot of their beds.

Holiday celebrations are steeped in history, family traditions, and even culture.  We can all see resemblances in our family traditions to the ones found in other countries.  What are some of your family traditions?  Does your family celebrate the holiday in different ways?  Are any of the Latin American traditions celebrated in your family?

By Lori Troyer of My Baby Clothes Boutique.  Specializing in everything that will make your angels holiday special - beautiful baby clothes with matching baby headbands or adorable newborn hats for the new arrivals.

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