Winter Traditions in Latin America

December 24, 2020

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Written by: Brenda Santiago, Cisneros Class of 2024 and Miguel Cardona, Cisneros Class of 2023

It’s the winter holiday season, a time for celebration throughout Spain and Latin America! While these countries share the importance of spending the holidays with family and friends — and making sure food and music are never scarce! — they also have unique cultural traditions. Take a holiday tour below to learn more about:

1. The ways Cisneros Scholars from different backgrounds celebrate the season!

2. The ways the season is celebrated throughout Hispanic/Latinx communities!

Día de Las Velitas (Colombia)

In Colombia, Dia de las Velitas is celebrated on December 7th and officially marks the beginning of the holiday season. Family, friends, and people from all over the neighborhood light candles to honor the Virgin Mary, or as she’s called in Colombia, Our Lady of the Rosary of Chiquinquirá, and her immaculate Conception, which is also celebrated the following day. Later, from December 16th until Christmas Eve, many Colombians take part in novenas. During this time, people get together with their families, friends, and neighbors to pray in the days leading up to Christmas. Every day, a different house hosts the prayer and they also sing carols and eat their favorite foods. The tradition is known as the Novena de Aguinaldos.

Christmas Posadas (Mexico, Guatemala, and Southwest United States)

Celebrated mostly in Mexico, Guatemala, and parts of the southwest U.S., Christmas Posadas are a tradition during the holiday season. People dress up as Mary and Joseph in small processions held nine days before Christmas Eve, reenacting their search for lodging on their way to Bethlehem. People also visit houses in the neighborhood to sing and ask for shelter. They are then welcomed by the hosts and have a small party with buñuelos, tamales, and other usual holiday foods. This celebration usually ends by breaking open a Christmas star-shaped piñata.

Charamicos and Angelitos (Dominican Republic)

In the Dominican Republic, the holiday season is one of the most awaited celebrations of the year. Around December, Dominican Christmas trees, charamicos, appear everywhere, from porches to city streets to town squares. Due to the lack of fresh-cut fir trees, people sometimes make wooden handcraft Christmas trees and decorate them with vibrant colors and beautiful ornaments. Many Dominican artisans handcraft white wooden Christmas trees to symbolize snow-covered trees, as it never snows in the D.R. In addition, giving presents during Christmas is also a tradition in the Dominican Republic. Traditional gift-giving is known as Un Angelito, similar to the secret Santa celebration in the U.S. Participants’ names are placed in a sack, then everyone picks one out. Whoever the person chooses is their Angelito, and every week they are responsible for giving their Angelito a gift. On the last day of the exchange, they reveal themselves!

Nochebuena (Latin America)

Nochebuena is widely celebrated across Latin American countries on the night before Christmas. These celebrations vary from household to household, but almost always include a gathering with family and friends, complete with an enormous feast, holiday music, dancing, and gifts. Depending on the family’s religious beliefs, this celebration also includes a late mass known as Misa del Gallo. Nochebuena is a well-known annual celebration and often goes well into the morning of Christmas.

Hanukkah Celebration (Argentina and Latin America)

Due to the strong Catholic tradition in Latin American countries, most holiday celebrations center around Christmas. However, several communities observe Hanukkah instead. For example, the largest Jewish population in Latin American is concentrated in Argentina and Buenos Aires in particular, where the Jewish community totals nearly 200,000. Hanukkah is a Jewish celebration lasting eight days in December that celebrates the triumph of light over darkness, beginning with the first candle’s lighting on the menorah (a candlestand with eight candles), the second candle on the second night, and so on. Many families celebrate the holiday with their favorite dishes, such as duck breast with pomegranate-chili sauce. In Buenos Aires, many people take the time to visit neighborhoods like Once and Abasto, where many Jewish grocers, restaurants, and stores come alive with festivity during the Hanukkah season.

Galet Soup and Tió de Nadal (Spain)

In Spain, several families get together on Christmas Eve and celebrate with their favorite music and foods. Some of the dishes include polvorones, a crumbly shortbread, and mazapanes, sugar or honey and almond pastry. Another popular dish is the Catalan Galet Soup. Galets are large shell-shaped pasta stuffed with meatballs and served in a big bowl of soup. Another widespread tradition centers around a log with a drawn-on face, a big smile, and a bold red hat in Spain. Its name is Tió de Nadal or Caga Tió and its purpose is to bring small presents on Christmas. Several people “feed” the log and cover it with a blanket in the days leading up to Christmas, and finally, on Christmas Eve, people hit the log, demanding it to defecate presents! On Christmas, the tio’s blanket is uncovered, and presents appear!

Parrandas and Pasteles (Puerto Rico)

During the holidays, Puerto Rico erupts in many big celebrations. Starting in late November, Christmas trees appear throughout the island. People participate in carol singing, called Parrandas (also called Asaltos), and visit their friend’s houses around 10 pm. They hope to surprise their friends with loud music and singing, mostly composed of bachata and salsa music. Eventually, the people woken up by the parranderos will join the group, and the objective is to end up with a large party. On Nochebuena, most Puerto Ricans celebrate with large gatherings composed of friends and family. Some of their favorite goods include lechón, arroz con gandules, and pasteles de yuca. Lechón is a type of pork that takes a long time to make, requiring people to begin cooking early in the day. Arroz con gandules is rice cooked with green pigeon peas, and usually has an orange-hue. Pasteles de yuca are similar to tamales but contain different ingredients. Traditional pasteles are made with a mixture of yautia (taro root), plantain, green banana, and sometimes kabocha pumpkin.

Regardless of the exact tradition, the holiday season is one of the most awaited times of the year because it brings families, friends, and loved ones together. From everyone at the Cisneros Hispanic Leadership Institute, we wish everyone a safe winter and holiday season!

Brenda Santiago is a first-year Cisneros Scholar, and Miguel Cardona is a second-year Cisneros Scholar. Brenda and Miguel’s views are their own and not necessarily reflective of the Cisneros Institute.