Santa Claus, reindeer and jingle bells are great, but they’re hardly the be all, end all of Christmas celebrations for many Latinos.
While many people around the world gather together on Dec. 25 to deck the halls and exchange gifts with family and friends, Latinos ’celebrations begin well before Christmas day and sometimes last into the first week of January. And don’t get us started on the size of our holiday parties.
Latinos’ holiday celebrations are BIG, with families, friends and, at times, entire neighborhoods, coming together to eat, drink, sing and dance until the wee hours of the morning. And depending on each family’s religious beliefs, some attend a special Midnight Mass.
Though Latinos’ holiday celebrations vary from country to country and from household to household, one thing holds true across the board: Latino holiday traditions and festivities are the gifts that keep on giving.
We’ve rounded up time-honored Latino traditions that never fail to put us in the holiday spirit.
Día de las Velitas
Día de las Velitas is celebrated in Colombia on Dec. 7, marking the beginning of the holiday season. Families, friends and neighbors light candles in public areas and neighborhoods in honor of the Virgin Mary and her Immaculate Conception, which is celebrated on Dec. 8.
Christmas Posadas are most popular in Mexico, Guatemala and parts of the southwest United States. Children and adults dress up as Mary and Joseph in small processions that are held during the nine days before Christmas Eve. The Posadas are supposed to be a reenactment of Joseph and Mary’s — “The Pilgrims”— search for lodging on their way to Bethlehem. According to Mex Connect, the tradition includes a party at a different neighborhood home each night. “The Pilgrims” sing a song asking for shelter, with the hosts replying in song before opening the door to offer hot punch, fried rosette cookies known as buñuelos, steaming tamales and other holiday foods. The party ends with the rupturing of a piñata in the shape of the Christmas star.
Oaxaca Radish Festival Mexico
It is known as “Noche de Rabanos,” or “Radish Night,” a century-old celebration held every December 23 in the main square in the city of Oaxaca, Mexico. Artisans carve and fashion radishes into elaborate scenes and human figures in one of the most unique celebrations in the world. Radishes are made to look like Jesus and other characters in the nativity scene. There’s traditional music, dance and typical food. And let’s not forget the piñata!
Puerto Rico’s Parrandas
The parranda is a Puerto Rican tradition where groups of friends and even strangers gather to “asaltar” or overtake other friends’ homes with holiday merriment. Some “parranderos” play musical instruments such as guitars, tamboriles and maracas, while others dance. Everyone sings. Parrandas are spontaneous, so every household must be prepared all throughout the holidays and at all hours to receive guests. Rum and traditional food is always available.
The Novena is a series of prayers that are said for nine straight days in anticipation of the birth of Jesus. The prayers are petitions but also offerings of thanks. Families typically gather around nativity scenes and pray together. After prayer, people play instruments and sing Villancicos or Christmas carols.
Each night, after the Novena, families sing villancicos. Villancicos are similar to Christmas carols and are sung while playing instruments like maracas and tambourines.
While most Americans are setting out cookies for Santa Claus on Christmas Eve, many Latino families are gathering to celebrate Nochebuena. Though festivities vary from household to household, most gatherings kickoff the night before Christmas with a party, complete with a large feast, traditional holiday music, dancing, gift-giving and, depending on the family’s religious beliefs, a trip to a late Mass known as Misa del Gallo. The festivities often last well into the wee hours of the Christmas morning.
La Misa del Gallo
Misa del Gallo, or the Rooster’s Mass, is celebrated at midnight on Christmas Eve to mark the birth of baby Jesus. This Catholic tradition originated in Rome and Spain but spread to other countries. Today, Misa del Gallo is one of the most important celebrations across the Hispanic world and even in the Philippines, where it is “traditionally held at the crack of dawn,” according to News Info Inquirer. “When the practice was popularized in Mexico, it was attuned to the needs of rural families who needed to celebrate Mass and still have time to return to their farms to work.”
For the Año Viejo celebration, people make life-size dolls from cardboard, sawdust and cloth and burn them at midnight on December 31. The Año Viejo doll represents the bad times of the past year and they’re being symbolically burned in hopes of starting the new year with a clean slate. It’s also an opportunity for creativity, with the dolls often depicting famous people, cartoon characters and even political figures that people disagreed with during the previous year. The Año Viejo tradition is popular in South American countries.
Día de los Reyes Magos
In many Spanish-speaking countries, Three Kings Day, or Dia de los Reyes Magos, on Jan. 6 is more important than Christmas. The holiday honors the arrival of the Three Wise Men — Balthazar, Melchor and Gaspar— bearing gifts for the newborn Jesus, a story from the New Testament. At the start of the new year, children typically write letters to Los Reyes Magos asking them for gifts. In Puerto Rico, it is traditional for children to leave grass or hay under their bed for the camels carrying the Three Kings. In Peru, parties are held to take down family nativity scenes and put them away until the next holiday season. This picture was taken in a Church celebration of Día de Los Reyes in San Salvador, El Salvador.