While an American influence has crept into Peruvian Christmas traditions more and more, the people of Peru still retain their own take on this important religious holiday. Depending on what region of the country you happen to find yourself in, you may experience very different traditions weaving both Christian and indigenous customs in a way that feels uniquely Peruvian.
Preparing for Christmas in Peru
Just about every culture decorates for Christmas, including Peru. While you may find Santas and Christmas trees in some households, no Peruvian family would ever neglect to set up their retablo or nativity scene.
In Cusco, families often buy the wood, pottery, or stone figurines for the retablo at the Santurantikuy market, a huge Christmas Eve crafts market that became one of the most famous Peruvian Christmas traditions.
One of the most beloved Peruvian Christmas traditions are the the special nativity scenes. These scenes have an Andean twist with the inclusion of llamas and alpacas in place of the usual donkeys and sheep. In addition to the tabletop retablo, many families also set up other religious-themed decorations including large wall hangings and carved gourds or “burilados.”
Charitable activities also play a role in the Christmas season in Peru, as they do in many other cultures. In Peru, churches and other organizations put on events called “chocolotadas” throughout the days leading up to Christmas. People line up for blocks to enjoy a free piece of panetón, a sweet bread studded with raisins and candied fruit, and a cup of hot chocolate spiced with cloves and cinnamon.
Peruvian Christmas Traditions
When it comes to celebrating Christmas in Peru, the main activities all take place on Christmas Eve, or Nochebuena. Most business close around noon on this day to help give people time to travel to their family home for the following 3 big events:
As the first official part of the Christmas celebrations, families head to church for a special mass around 10 pm. The late hour of this mass represents the Bible story of the shepherds seeing the Star of Bethlehem on the night of Jesus’ birth.
Cena de Navidad or Christmas Dinner
After mass, families return home to a delicious midnight feast. The meal usually features a roast turkey or a roast pig with tamales and applesauce, followed by panetón and hot chocolate.
In some homes, children open their presents before dinner, while other families exchange gifts afterwards. For families who don’t believe in Santa Claus, the children’s gifts won’t appear until the magi bring them on Three Kings Day on January 6th.
Tonos or House Parties
After dinner, the kids go to bed but the adults’ Christmas celebration continues with a “tono” or house party. Plenty of dancing, drinking, and fireworks will take place, and often the party doesn’t wind down until 5 or 6 am.
Fortunately, the government considers Christmas Day among the official national Peruvian holidays so no one has to go to work the day after the big Christmas party. Instead, Peruvians spend Christmas Day at home, recuperating from the partying of the night before in a relaxed family atmosphere.