Navidad procession in El Cocuy, Colombia. photo © Lorraine Caputo
The streets are crowded with people rushing from shop to shop, buying gifts. Vendors call, Wrapping paper, five sheets for a dollar! Barely heard above the ruckus are the greetings of the jolly fat man dressed in red, perhaps accompanied by two curvaceous elves dressed in micro-minis. At schools and workplaces, partiers are dressed in costume, and bags of candies or large boxes of viveres (dry goods) gifted.
Pase de Niño. photo © Lorraine Caputo
Processions wind through narrow streets. From before Christmas through the Feast of Epiphany, city traffic will be stopped for the Pase del Niño. Schoolchildren dress as José, María, the three Wise Men, shepherds (pastores) and angels to accompany the baby Christ. And, of course, in the novena leading up to Christmas Day, the pre-dawn prayers and song of the faithful softly echo down the cobblestone lanes.
Large manger scenes decorate the churches, homes and even hilltops. In living rooms, families read the novena in front of the nativity scene. On Nochebuena (Christmas Eve), they go to the special mass where the baby Jesus is presented, kissed by all, then placed in the manger scene. The midnight sky is painted by the bursts of hundreds of fireworks, celebrating the birth of the Lord Savior. After the mass, families retire home for a big feast and to exchange gifts. (In few places do they keep the custom of gift-giving on the Feast of Epiphany, the Day of the Three Magi – 6 January.)
Christmas-season dinners differ from country to country. There may be turkey or tamales (a.k.a. hallacas). A Mexican side dish is ensalada de Nochebuena (Christmas Eve Salad), made of apple, celery and walnuts dressed with heavy cream. In Argentina, they’ll be sitting down to a parrillada (barbecue). A common desert is pan de Pascua or panetón, similar to the Italian delicacy, panettone (a sweet bread with dried fruits and nuts). Rompope, a drink very much like eggnog, will be spiked with rum; this typical drink is called cola de mono in Chile.
Every year, Quito (Ecuador) erects a manger scene atop the Panecillo, on the south side of the Centro Histórico. The city claims this is the highest nativity scene in the world. photo © Lorraine Caputo
Everywhere, villancicos are sung. Some of these Christmas carols are familiar, like Noche de Paz (Silent Night). Others are unique to Latin America, such as El Burrito Sabanero. Unlike northern European (including US) traditions, caroling from house to house is not common.
In Latin America, the weeks leading up to 25 December are like much elsewhere. But each country, each place also has its traditions.
In Mexico, are the posadas, nine days of processions through neighborhoods, topped off with tamales and hot atole drink. Also in Mexico – specifically Oaxaca – is the Noche de Rábanos, or Night of the Radishes, celebrated on 23 December with a popular competition of the best-carved giant radishes.
In Trujillo, on Honduras’ Caribbean coast, the Indio Bárbaro accosts people for donations to community projects. If you happen to be out on the street when he passes by, and you refuse to give him a “tip,” he will bear-hug you with his grease-covered body! Another Garífuna tradition in these Black Caribe towns, is Hüngühüngü (also called Fedu), the women-oriented processions of the singing, dancing grandmas.
Cousin Its in Málaga, Colombia. photo © Lorraine Caputo
During the Christmas novena (16-24 December) in the small mountain village of Málaga (Colombia), teens dress up as Matachines (masked, Cousin-It-looking creatures). They prowl the streets, brandishing gaily painted, inflated cow’s bladders. Money collected from would-be wallop victims is used to fund the carrazo floats in the parades at the beginning of January.
Everyone heads to the beach during the Christmas-New Year holiday, if they can. Prices rise – for transport, lodging and food – and the strand is über-crowded with lots of drinking people blaring music. This is definitely a time to witness Latin American partying at its finest. (If you prefer your beach scene to be, well, rather saner, I recommend you wait. Leave the beaches to the locals during holidays – you can go any time.) And some folk, in order to finance these family vacations, resort to petty thievery in the weeks leading up to the holiday: Keep an eye on your belongings!
Since 1988, I have spent most northern winters travelling in Latin America. I have passed the Christmas season in large cities and small towns in Mexico, Honduras, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Chile and Argentina.
I have witnessed and celebrated many of these traditions. My encounter with the Indio Bárbaro in Trujillo (me, barefoot, recuperating from a broken toe, returning from the beach with nary a centavito in my shorts, is one of the culturally most embarrassing moments I’ve ever, well, enacted …) In Estelí (Nicaragua), I shared a meal with a Quebecois, of whatever special things we could find in the market ($1 US for an apple!). In Chile, I took a train on Christmas Eve, arriving in the capital like the Virgin Mary: no room at the inns.
Today, let’s take a poetic-photographic trip through the sights and sounds of Navidad in Latin America.
And however and wherever you are celebrating this holiday, may your season be bright, and the New Year be full of wishes come true.
This beautiful pesebre in Iglesia Señora del Carmen (Pamplona, Colombia) extends half-ways down the nave. photo © Lorraine Caputo
For the past few weeks, Catholic churches and public spaces throughout Latin America have displayed crèches, These Nativity scenes – called belén (Bethlehem), nacimiento or pesebre in Spanish – display Mary (María), Joseph (José) and the three Kings (Tres Magos or Tres Reyes Magos) along with shepherds and angels.
Beyond the usual cast of characters, though, is a motley assembly of animals: Among the expected sheep, camels and burros are farm animals – chickens, pigs, cows, etc. – and local fauna, like llama. The animals and humans are of a variety of sizes. It is not unusual to see a cock towering over a Magi.
In the oldest cathedral
on the American continent
built of Maya temple stones
On the day the Three Kings
visited the manger
in this side chapel
Mary tenderly places the Christ child in his cradle
Joseph presents him with out-stretched hand
Slowly the Magi approach
passing by a giant cow
by a giant tapir
Yellow lights drape the plastic pine boughs
& dried palm fronds hung
with colorful glass ornaments
They wink in electronic rhythm to
Oh, All ye faithful coming
shepherds magi & others
Hark! Do you hear the herald angels singing
with the jingling bells?
Even Santa Claus is coming to this town
on this silent night
when joy has entered the world
Frosty the Snowman watches
those who come a-wassailing
Through the open windows
the sound & smell of traffic passes
The chapel begins to resound
with the cathedral bells pealing
for five-o-clock mass
poem © Lorraine Caputo
Iglesia San Sebastián, located on the eastern flank of the Panecillo, reflects the barrio’s indigenous heritage: José and María are from the Shuar nation. The three Magi are from Otavalo, Esmeraldas and Tsáchila. The scene also includes the fathers and nuns of the Oblate order doing missionary work among Ecuador’s other indigenous nations. photo © Lorraine Caputo
The infant Jesus is not added to the Nativity scene until tonight, 24 December. At the night mass, the infant is presented to the congregation. Each devotee shall kiss him, before he is tenderly placed in the straw-filled cradle in the center of the pesebre.
The Latin American custom is for the family to attend mass together (however, the Misa de Gallos, or Midnight Mass is quite rare these days), and then break fast with a huge family meal.
Near midnight on Christmas Eve
Within the aged church
A line of people slowly passes to the front
Each stoops to kiss
the Christ child nestled
in the arms of a woman
A nun stands next to her
handkerchief in hand
ready to wipe away lipstick
Fathers with their young sons and daughters
stop in front of the manger
framed in winking lights
to ponder the miracle
of the still-empty cradle
After the last mother, the last child
has welcomed that baby
He is laid into the straw-bedded cradle
his hands wide open to this world
his fat legs kicking the air
& the families step into the streets
washed clean by the rain
the sunset lightning had forebode
poem © Lorraine Caputo
In many Catholic homes, families also present a manger scene. In the evenings, they gather around it to say the novena and sing villancicos (Christmas carols). It is not uncommon for the manger cradle to hold more than one infant Jesus. They are the personal Christs of several generations of the family: mother, daughters, aunts, grandmother. photo © Lorraine Caputo
Nativity scenes aren’t just relegated to churches. Many homes and businesses will also have one set up – like this inn in northern Mexico.
(San Fernando, Mexico)
The moon is almost full
sometimes visible through
the swift heavy clouds
Beneath, within the black of this night
Mary recently full, now illuminated
stares down upon her child
Her hands are crossed
against her full breasts
Joseph looks plaintively
upon her child
They are framed
in winking multi-color lights
Each strand alit for just a moment
then still in the gusty night
The courtyard is dark and quiet
Puddles from the days of passing rains
glisten in the holy lights of this chilled night
poem © Lorraine Caputo
The crèche in Iglesia La Merced, in the Historic Center of Lima, Peru, occupies one large side chapel of the church, and includes scenes of the Peruvian life in the countryside and the city. photo © Lorraine Caputo
We grow up with the tale of ghosts of Christmas past. In Northern European indigenous traditions, ghost stories are told around the Yule log. This season, it is believed, is one of the times of year when the veils between the World of the Living and the World of the Dead part, allowing families and friends to once again reunite.
One year in Buenos Aires, I could sense those spirits and I thought about relatives who had immigrated to that port city almost a century earlier.
(Buenos Aires, Argentina)
In these narrow streets
of San Telmo
lit by a nearly
erupts with the burst
set by boys & men
The sparkles reflect
in windows of
The cracks splinter the
In the shadows
of doorways stand
families shawled in
the cool of summer’s eve
& the spirits perished
from cholera & yellow fever,
of immigrants surviving
in cramped conventillos
poem © Lorraine Caputo
Iglesia Santo Domingo (Quito, Ecuador). photo © Lorraine Caputo
One thing – especially for travelers from the Northern Hemisphere – that is much different about Navidad in Latin America is that a White Christmas exists only in song. Only in the extreme north of Mexico (perhaps, depending on the year) and the highest of mountains will you find snow. Most of the region is located in the tropics, and it is summer south of the equator.
RESISTENCIA CHRISTMAS EVE
the heat, the humidity
multi-grey cumulus mounding
high into the heavens
until late afternoon
when its crescendo
erupted into thunder
pulsed by lightning
a rain washing
the blistered streets raw
& the clouds
into a uniform tone
the cathedral is dark
A man eats cake
on his blanket
upon the steps
A few kiosks are yet
grilling sandwiches, serving beer
at sidewalk tables
All else is closed
(save a pharmacy)
security guards murmur
Festive lights pulsate
in darkened windows
The laughter, the music
of a party drifts
down a deserted street
As that twelve o’clock hour nears
the crescendo of rockets
mounts, pulsed by sprays of
multi-colored sparks across
the heavens, clouds of gunpowder
Resting birds startle
from a tree
The hotel watchman
sits in a lawn chair
on the front walk,
sipping sidra &
listening to chamamé
on his radio
poem © Lorraine Caputo
The scene in Quito’s most luxurious church, La Compañía, has a classic air to it, in harmony with the temple’s Baroque interior. photo © Lorraine Caputo