Christmas is a festive time in most countries, and this includes the countries in South America. It is celebrated with lights and colors, with excitement and passion. Each of the countries in the continent has unique traditions that are their own, as well as enjoying some common traditions that are shared by most of the world.
It is necessarily different in South America, as the southern hemisphere has opposite seasons from the northern. This means that Christmas falls in the middle of summer rather than the middle of winter.
Christmas trees in Argentina are sometimes decorated with cotton balls, to simulate snow, and they are not always pine trees. Most homes include a nativity scene near the tree. The globos, or paper lanterns, that are launched into the air on Christmas Eve are a fun tradition that is unique to Argentina.
At midnight on Christmas Eve, firecrackers are set off by many Bolivians. Following a midnight mass (sometimes called “Misa del Gallo” or “Mass of the Rooster”), the people of Bolivia eat their large Christmas meal. Employees often receive a gift from their employers called a “Canaston.” This is a large tub or basket that has food items like biscuits, bread, rice, sugar, and such in it.
A Nativity play called “The Shepherds” is often performed in north Brazil. In this play, there are shepherdesses and Baby Jesus is in danger of being kidnapped by a gypsy.
Father Christmas, or “Papai Noel,” wears clothes of silk because of the heat. He brings presents to the children.
A secret friend tradition is a fun tradition for Brazilian friends and family. Names are written on slips and taken by others, and the people exchange messages with the person on their slip of paper, using false names to keep people from knowing. A final special present is given on Christmas Day, when the “amigo secreto” is revealed.
It is common for cities in Brazil to have large Christmas trees festooned with lights.
The traditional holiday treat that is particularly Chile’s is the beverage known as Cola de Mono, which means “Monkey’s Tail.” It is made from coffee, alcohol, and sugar, along with milk and spices like anise.
Santa is called “Viejito Pascuero” which is Old Man Christmas, and he is small so he can fit through the chimney.
December 7th begins the Christmas season in Colombia. The day commemorates Mary, “the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception.” Also known as “The Day of Candles,” it is a day when candles are lit everywhere, anywhere people are, including homes, churches, and more. They eat pastries filled with meat, potatoes, or other fillings, called empanadas or buñuelos.
Fireworks and paper globe lanterns are seen throughout December in the skies over Colombian homes.
Ecuador sees processions of the people from homes in the mountains leading llamas that they have decorated for the season. They carry fruit and other treats to their employers’ ranches. They place them by the nativity scene and poems are recited to the Holy Infant. This is followed by employers giving the employees presents, followed by a big party with a feast.
Guyana starts the Christmas season with deep cleaning. Some refer to this as “breaking up of the house.”
About two months before Christmas, people make “black cake” which is a dense, dark cake of which bits are sent to cousins that do not live nearby. It is a form of fruitcake, which includes soaking the fruit in rum for several months.
Parades that include drummers and dancers that are wearing masks of characters such as Long Man, Long-lady (or Boom Boom Sally or Mother Sally), and Cow take place during the holiday season.
Gift-giving in Paraguay is often done on Epiphany (January 6) rather than Christmas Day. While trees with lights on them are a common decoration, the real importance of the season is family. Santa Claus is known as Papa Noel, but the main focus of Christmas in Paraguay is the birth of Jesus. There are many nativity scenes (presebre) around town and in homes.
Many of Peru’s traditions come from the Incas and the Spanish that conquered their nation at some point. The Roman Catholic influence results in a proclivity for celebrating the Christian holidays such as Christmas, with traditional celebrations included from the other cultures.
Noche Buena (“good night”) is the term used for Christmas Eve. Christmas Eve at midnight is when the celebrations begin in most Peruvian families. An evening mass begins the celebration for many people, beginning about 9 or 10 pm. Following that, Peruvians return home for the biggest party of the year. They have a meal and presents, a toast at midnight, and a huge fireworks display. The fireworks are set off by nearly every family, who purchase them in the weeks leading up to Christmas. The whole sky will have fireworks exploding as most people are sending fireworks into the sky above them.
One of the treats at the Christmas meal is the traditional paneton – an Italian sweet bread that is sold nearly everywhere.
The week before Christmas, organizations and communities organize what they call “chocolatadas” for the children who might not get presents, offering a cup of hot chocolate and sometimes a little gift.
“Goedoe Pa” or “Dearest Daddy” is the name given to the one who delivers presents in Suriname.
On December 6th, children may find presents and poems in their shoes. This tradition began in 1975. Prior to that, Suriname was a colony of the Dutch, and many of the traditions were the same as the ones generally practiced in the Netherlands. This included Saint Nicholas who arrived by ship and rode a white horse.
As in Paraguay, Santa is called Papa Noel. Christmas trees are often in houses, but are usually artificial, as live pine trees are difficult to find. A small nativity scene is found in most homes. The baby Jesus is left out of the scene until Christmas morning. Families enjoy dinner together on Christmas Eve. When midnight hits, adults will point children toward a star in the sky or do fireworks, while another adult slips presents under the tree. The children are delighted and amazed to find that the presents have appeared.
Music is a large part of the Venezuelan Christmas. Traditional songs are played on guitar, maracas, and drum while people sing.
For nine mornings before Christmas, the church has mass. Some people may roller-skate to the church.
The traditional feast includes “hallaca” which is a mixture of meat, capers, olives, and raisins filling a dough made from cornmeal and steamed or baked inside plantain leaves, a ham-and-raisin bread, and a sweet treat made of brown sugar and papaya.