Latin America: Christmas,
tradition and culture
By N. Patricia Montaño
Editor's Note: Many of the traditions and rituals described in this article originated in Roman Catholicism -- the predominant expression of Christianity in Central and Latin America. Methodists and other Protestants in these countries may incorporate some of them into their cultural celebrations during Advent and Christmas. Some will adapt them or develop other rituals for the seasons reflecting their theology.
Latin American culture is rich in oral traditions, a product growing from 500 years of mixing the cultures of the native Indigenes (indigenous people), African slaves and Spanish colonizers. Christmas time provides one the most important expressions of these traditions, full of music, lights, parties and food, but especially villancicos and Las Posadas, or Novenas Navideñas.
Preparation for Christmas Eve or Noche Buena
Villancicos (village songs) are Christmas carols with religious themes used as a poetic and musical way to announce and celebrate the arriving of the Christ child. Villancicos originated in medieval Spain.
Las Posadas and Novenas Navideñas are celebrated in some Latin American countries from Dec. 16 through the 24 in preparation for the Noche Buena. These nine days symbolize Mary's pregnancy, the journey of Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem and the search for lodging for the night Jesus was born. It is also a period of reflection and thanksgiving.
This tradition is attributed to Saint John of the Cross and started in the Americas in 1586 after Friar Diego de Soria requested the pope's authorization to celebrate the services they called Aguinaldos for the nine-day period. The main purpose was to use this ritual to evangelize the Indigenes in Mexico and Guatemala. Later the tradition was extended to other countries.
Novenas Navideñas and Las Posadas have the same origin, however there are some differences between them. In fact, every country has its own way to celebrate the nine days before Christmas Eve.
Guatemala: For nine days before Christmas, Las Posadas are celebrated as religious processions pass through the streets. The figures of Mary and Joseph are carried to a friend's house, where a carol is sung asking for lodging for the Holy Family.
Puerto Rico: Early in the Christmas season, carolers begin going from house to house. Nine days before Christmas, the Mass of the Carols begins. This takes place each morning at 5:30.
Colombia: The Christmas season starts on Dec. 7, when families light candles (approximately 100 candles on the sidewalk area). During nine days beginning Dec. 16, Colombians usually do Novenas Navideñas, where families and neighbors gather together at night around the Nativity scenes to sing villancicos and pray to the Virgin Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus.
Mexico: Mexican households are decorated with flowers and evergreens. Each night groups of villagers (Santos Peregrinos or holy pilgrims) assemble for the procession of Las Posadas. Carrying candles and chanting songs, they go from house to house looking for lodging for the Holy Family.
Ecuador: Novenas, or house tours, begin the holiday season nine days before Christmas. Ecuadorians visit other homes at this time looking at the nativity scenes. A special cookie, made with maple syrup, is eaten as a treat.
Peru: Peruvians put together Nativity scenes in churches and homes, perform dances and plays, and cook traditional food. In the week preceding Christmas, it is also popular for communities and churches to organize "chocolatadas," where people who are offer poor children a cup of hot chocolate and, perhaps, a small gift.
The Christmas season is a time for the Latin American community to use its resources to display the best of its culture, people and country.
In Brazil, the sea plays a role as Christmas is celebrated with the rhythm of the waves. Countries such as Bolivia and Ecuador celebrate their culture with traditional music to give a touch of joy during this season. In Colombia, in metropolitan cities like Bogotá, parks and city streets are illuminated with large Christmas lights. In El Salvador and Nicaragua, people cook the best of their traditional food, and, around midnight, there is usually a display of fireworks and estrellitas (little stars), which illuminate the beauty of the lands and beaches.
Villancicos, Las Posadas and Novenas come from a religious heritage, however these traditions create for children and adults, for believers and nonbelievers, a familiar sense gathering.
Noche Buena in Latin America
Christmas Eve, or Noche Buena, is a day when all Latin Americans value family and put it first during Christmas celebrations. Families and neighbors gather together to eat and dance. Some families go to the Misa del Gallo, or "Rooster Mass" (the name for the Christmas Mass), which begins at midnight. Others stay at home and gather together around the Nativity scenes to pray and sing villancicos, and wait until midnight to wish each other Merry Christmas, exchange gifts, and have a big dinner. For all Latin American people, this night is when everything and everyone is in a festive frenzy with laughter and hugs for the birth of Jesus.
Another typical tradition is to place the baby Jesus figure as part of the Nativity scene, or Pesebre. The Nativity scene may be set under the tree a month earlier, but the figure is not placed until after midnight of Christmas Eve, symbolizing that Christ is now born.
Because of constant immigration and the influence of popular culture from different countries, other traditions have been introduced. The Christmas tree has joined the manger scene as a popular ornament. Traditionally, el Niño Jesús -- the Christ Child -- or the Three Wise Men are who would bring the gifts. But recently, Santa Claus has been introduced as a gift-giver as well.
Gifts are given from the baby Jesus or Santa Claus, as a way for families to show love giving and receiving presents, but in Latin America the Christmas season is also the time when people show the solidarity that exists in their population, regardless of nationality or religion.
-- N. Patricia Montaño, Bogotá, Colombia, is an intern with Interpreter Magazine and a graduate of Universidad Distrital Francisco José de Caldas in Bogotá.