Latin Christmas Traditions
Do you want to celebrate Hispanic Christmas traditions? Then make sure you are invited to a “Nochebuena” -Hispanic Christmas Eve, participate in “Las Posadas” -reenacting of Mary and Joseph’s search for lodging. attend “Misa de Gallo” -Catholic mass at 12 midnight, and decorate your home with a “pesebre” -nativity and Poinsettias.
Read on…if you want to experience real Hispanic Christmas traditions this holiday! Did you know the first Hispanic Christmas celebrated in the Americas was in The Dominican Republic and Haiti?
Yes, at the time Cristobal Colón or Christopher Columbus named the island “La Española.” Doing recognition of the zone “La Santa María” got damaged. The indigenous people helped rescue the cargo and build the fort with the remains of “La Santa María.” The fort was finished on the 25th of December of 1492. There, Colón with his men celebrated their first Christmas in the new world.
Las Navidades, Navidad or Las Pascuas
These are three names for Hispanic Christmas. We tend to direct our attention towards the spiritual aspect of it but we also love to “parrandear” or have parties to celebrate the holiday, and enjoy the gift-giving tradition.
In most Hispanic countries the official Hispanic Christmas tradition that dictates the beginning of the “Navidades” is the Advent, which is the fourth Sunday before “Nochebuena” or Christmas Eve.
In keeping our Hispanic traditions I always start las navidades on the first week of December and I involve my family in the process.
Try to buy a CD with the Spanish narration of the Christmas story. This is a wonderful way to practice Spanish (my son is bilingual) and start enjoying Chritsmas while we make the tree, pesebre and place the decorations.
Nowadays the practice of playing “Secret Santa” or just giving a present to the person whose name you withdraw from a bag, is becoming fairly common. All based on the economic situation of the families that decide upon the game.
Misa de Gallo – Midnight Mass
Misa de Gallo or Mass of the Rooster is the midnight mass which is a very common practice Hispanics observe. We go to mass at midnight to commemorate the birth of baby Jesus. The legend says the first rooster flew on “Nochebuena” above the manger announcing “Christ has been born,” and the second one crowed “In Bethlehem.”
Las Posadas y Las Pastorelas
We also celebrate by recreating the pilgrimage of Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem trying to find “posada” or lodging. The “posadas” or processions and “pastorelas” which are plays, are ancient Hispanic Christmas traditions born from the need to revive the pilgrimage mentioned above.
This tradition is primarily Mexican. Children and adults dress up as Mary and Joseph or the participants carry the images of them in a semi-procession during the nine days before “Nochebuena” or Christmas Eve.
The first eight nights Mary and Joseph are rejected when they ask for lodging but the last night they finally find a place and that night Jesus is born. Schools and churches participate in the tradition throughout Mexico and some parts of the U.S. where many Mexicans reside.
“La Novena de Navidad” or “La Novena de Aguinaldo” –The Novena
La Novena is a nine-day religious practice that Hispanics use to prepare before the arrival of “El Niño Jesus” or baby Jesus. Families gather around the “pesebre” or nativity to complete it during these nine-days and pray at the same time. This practice is more common in South American countries like Venezuela, Colombia, and Ecuador.
“La Novena” has a basic program we follow and it is complemented with “villancicos” or Christmas carols which we sing along with rattles we make of bottle caps passed through wire. We also play the tops of the pans as cymbals.
The novena has not only Jesus as central figure but also all of our children. who love praying the novena and singing.
True Latin Christmas Decorations
La Nochebuena or Hispanic Christmas Eve
Hispanics celebrate Christmas Eve by reuniting with their families, going to mass and together having “La Cena de Nochebuena” or Christmas Eve dinner before or after attending mass.
The “fiesta” -celebration- starts with great music and lots of appetizers, main dishes and desserts all of which are traditional foods and characteristic of each country or region.
“La cena de Nochebuena” varies in terms of main course, side dishes and desserts depending on your country’s traditions. Pork, chicken and beef as well as tamales are common entrees. Turkey has been adopted lately, modeled after the American Christmas.
Ponsettias – The Eternal “Flor de Navidad”
The perennial Poinsettias from Mexico or “Polifacias” like my mother used to call them, are the typical Christmas flower. Even though we use them in some countries of Central and South America, and heavily in the U.S., Mexicans are who use them the most.
The Aztecs called Poinsettias “Cuetlaxóchitl,” and they are in part a gift from Mexico. The beautiful plant traveled to the U.S. in 1829 thanks to Joel R. Poinsett the first U.S. minister to Mexico. But it was a farmer from Los Angeles, Paul Ecke, who a century later started to cultivate the Poinsettia as a potted plant.
There are several stories about how the Poinsettia became “the Christmas flower.” The less romantic of all tells us that Paul Ecke traveled across country promoting the plant by convincing growers, wholesalers and retailers to carry it explaining it would make a great Christmas gift and a beautiful decoration piece during the holidays.
La Pólvora or fireworks
Many countries have Hispanic Christmas traditions that include “polvora” or fireworks, nothing like Grucci but totally fun to enjoy.
I still remember my Christmas celebrations back in Colombia when my parents used to give the children the famous “Chispitas Mariposa,” a little stick that sparks when it is lit sounds more dangerous than it really is.
El Arbol De Navidad – The Christmas Tree
“El árbol de Navidad” means the Christmas tree, and it is generally located in a place to be seen like a window, the middle of the living room or beside the nativity.
On the top we place an angel or a star which reminds us of how the Three kings and the shepherds found the new born Jesus.
Under the tree we place gifts for family and friends which we give on December the 16th when the “Novena de Aguinaldos” starts. “Aguinaldo” means Christmas gift in Spanish, and that is one of the reasons for the name “Novena de Aguinaldo” since it is on the same day we give the presents to friends, acquaintances, neighbors, or extended family.
Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Nicaraguans, Salvadorians, Venezuelans, Argentineans, Colombians, etc., don’t celebrate Hispanic Christmas exactly the same.
One thing is for sure, strong religious influence, celebrating with family, typical music and “villancicos”, drinks made from representative ingredients from the region, and foods characteristic of each country are bountiful and a strong part of typical Hispanic Christmas traditions.