Throughout the Catholic countries of Southern Europe and Latin America, Christmas is perhaps the year’s major event. Yet, different cultural influences mean that Christmas traditions vary between the countries. Here’s a few festive highlights of how the holiday is celebrated in the Spanish-speaking world!
In Cuba, an entire generation grew up not celebrating Christmas. This was due to the actions of Fidel Castro who declared the country atheist, and in 1969, officially removed Christmas from the calendar. It was thought that the holiday was interfering with the sugar harvest. In 1997, Castro finally agreed to restore Christmas as a public holiday to honour the visit of Pope John Paul II. Today it is one of the most joyous occassions in the country, with a large mass held in Havana’s Revolution Square.
An important character of Chilean Christmas traditions is Viejito Pascuero or Old Man Christmas. He resembles a smaller sized Santa Claus which many say is because Chile has smaller chimneys. Since Christmas falls in the hot summer, families often gather together for outdoor fun and sports from surfing to rock climbing!
The ancient Mayan culture mixed with Spanish Christianity has created unique Christmas traditions in Guatemala. Posadas (religious processions) pass through the streets in the nine days before Christmas, accompanied by drums and fireworks. Figures of Mary and Joseph are carried to selected houses where a carol is sung asking for lodging. They are accepted in, where they are laid to rest for the night. Once the procession is over, it’s time to feast! Street vendors sell a traditional fruit drink called ponche de frutas, made of bananas, papayas, pineapples and apple.
Ancient customs are also interweaved into the Catholic calendar, as seen in the festival held on 21st December in the city of Chichicastenango. The date symbolises the saint day of St Thomas and is also the shortest day of the year. Celebrating elements of ancient sun worship, a tall pole is erected in a large square. Men climb to the top with their ankles bound together. They leap from the top, unwinding the ropes as they fall. It is believed that if they land on their feet, the days will once again grow longer.
In Mexico, Christmas celebrations are held from December 12th to January 6th. A popular Christmas flower is the poinsettia. The legend goes that a little girl was walking to church to visit the Nativity scene, when she realised she had nothing to offer the Christ child. Saddened by this thought, her cousin told her “I am sure that even the most humble gift, if given in love, will be acceptable in His eyes.” Not knowing what else to do, the girl gathered together a bunch of common weeds growing at the roadside. The other children laughed at her, but when she laid them by the manger, they began to bloom in bright red poinsettia flowers. From that day on, the bright red flowers are known as Flores de Noche Buena or Flowers of the Holy Night.
The main celebrations take place on Christmas Eve, with Mass in the afternoon and then home for dinner and festivities. Since the weather is warm, it not unusual to have a barbeque or picnic as the main Christmas meal. Pan dulce (bread filled with sweets) and sidra (cider) or champagne are served with dessert. The evening festivities include lighting paper ballons (globos) and watching them float upwards, illuminating the night sky.
So we’ve seen that whilst traditions vary between the Spanish-speaking countries, three things are always present: delicious food, festive music and good times with loved ones! Everyone at Spanish Marks wishes you a very merry Christmas and a wonderful New Year! ¡Feliz Navidad!
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