Holidays in Latin America celebrate faith, family and community in a festive, at times whimsical, style. Traditions range from waking people up with Christmas carols in the middle of the night to sculpting massive radishes to burning images to ward off evil spirits from the year just over.
In the five centuries since Spanish colonizers arrived in the Western Hemisphere, the Roman Catholic Church has played a major role in shaping Latin American cultural traditions. Its ceremonies, which mark the birth of Jesus Christ, fill the holiday schedule – from midnight masses to re-creation of biblical birth stories. But even as the early Spanish priests and missionaries sought to abolish the spiritual practices of African and indigenous peoples, some rituals survived, often by being incorporated into church ceremonies.
And as many of these holiday traditions migrated from Spain to Latin America, some have also since migrated to Latinx communities in North America.
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For nine nights from December 16, people dressed as Mary and Joseph (often with Mary on a donkey) led crowds of Christians through cities and towns in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and parts of the southwestern United States, re-enacting the couple’s pilgrimage before Jesus’ birth. in a manger in Bethlehem. On every night of the inns– meaning “inns” in English – the singing processions are turned away from the homes along the way and eventually reach someone who welcomes them to an evening of singing, writing, food and fun, including star-shaped piñatas for the kids. On the ninth and final night of the “pilgrimage,” festivities and fireworks abound, and in some places it leads right into the midnight Christmas Mass.
Started by missionaries in Mexico more than 400 years ago and codified by a papal bull, the tradition combined Roman Catholic observations around the birth of Christ with the popular Aztec Winter Solstice Festival and the celebration of the Aztec mother goddess Tonantzin. She was a native pre-Spanish deity who was fused in the public consciousness with the iconic Virgin of Guadalupe after an Indian farmer saw an appearance of a brown-skinned Virgin Mary on the same hill where Tonantzin’s temple had been.
Horseradish Festival in Oaxaca
At Noche de Rábanos, on December 23, people line up for hours in the main square of Oaxaca, Mexico, to see the oversized radishes cut into everything from Christmas cribs to images of Oaxaca folklore to the latest political caricature.
The tradition goes back to the end of the 19thth century. Legend has it that two monks pulled huge deformed radishes that had been in the ground for too long, and farmers shaped the vegetables into figures as curiosities at their annual Christmas market. In 1897, Mayor Francisco Vasconcelos took what had become a marketing gimmick in an area long known for its colorful wood carvings, launching a formal radish carving competition, which now features work by carvers of all ages in various categories.
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Novenen in Aguinaldos
Families and communities in Colombia, Ecuador and parts of Venezuela gather for nine nights with prayer, feasts and religious songs called Christmas carols, in anticipation of the birth of Christ on December 25th. Different homes can host each night. And the believers also gather to pray in churches, some dressed as Joseph, Mary and the baby Jesus, bringing animals seen in the nativity scene.
And 18thThe Franciscan missionary of the century, Fernando de Jesús Larrea, compiled the special prayers recited each night in the Novena of Aguinaldos, or the novena for the Child Jesus. Published in 1743, they were modified and updated in the 19thth century by a nun named Maria Ignacia, who added the verse called The joys, usually sung to the tunes of guitars and harps at the end of each night in the novena.
Midnight Mass – La Misa de Gallo
To celebrate the birth of Christ, millions of Catholics in Latin America and in large parts of the world are packing churches for the Midnight Mass on December 25, or a few hours before noon. Good night (Christmas Eve). Known in large parts of Latin America as Midnight Mass, which literally translates as “the mass of the rooster”, it serves as a collective guard for the birth of Christ.
In the fifth century, Pope Sixtus III created the custom of celebrating the Midnight Mass at the stage of birth behind the altar in Rome’s Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore. Starting the vigil at the “rooster crow”, an ancient Roman expression for the start of a new day at midnight, apparently gave the special fair its name.
In some lands, scripture readings and joyful music from the midnight Mass are broadcast on radio or television, similar to the one offered by the pope in the Vatican.
READ MORE: How Christmas was celebrated in the Middle Ages
Parrandas is the ultimate traveling party that promotes a sense of community during the holiday season. But in Cuba and Puerto Rico, the traditions are very different.
In some cities in Cuba, the parties are organized carnival-like festivals, filled with candles, music, floats and fireworks. The tradition is said to have originated in the 19th century in the town of Remedios, where a young priest tried to drum up church attendance by sending children on the street to make loud noises.
In Puerto Rico, on the other hand, parrandas are a more grassroots form of celebration. Groups carrying guitars, trumpets, percussion instruments and handheld drums called tambourine or tambourines go to someone’s home in the evening, or wake them up in the wee hours of the morning, sing and play music at their doorstep until the host shuts them in. Hosts offer traditional Puerto Rican refreshments as the party continues, alternating between traditional Christmas songs called bonuses and festive impromptu gossip verses about the problems of the year or about how they will cry if they do not get a drink.
Happy New Year!
People all over Latin America are ringing in the new year with food, fire and fun. New Year’s Eve gives way to family dinners for fireworks in the streets or large pyrotechnic exhibitions in the main public squares of cities such as Valparaiso, Chile, Guatemala City or Mexico City.
Parties across Latin America keep alive a New Year’s tradition drawn from Spain: eating 12 grapes, one at each bell in the countdown to midnight, to ensure good luck. In some countries, it is believed that wearing yellow underwear will bring prosperity in the coming year, while red underwear will bring love.
In Ecuador, men dressed in drag – the “widows” of the past year – dance seductively in the streets, forcing drivers to pay tolls to make ends meet.
And in several Latin American nations, people cleanse their last-year demons, real or symbolic, by making life-size dolls or dolls – depending on the country, some may be made with masks and cardboard mache or by filling old clothes with paper – and burning them in powerlessness at midnight.
READ MORE: 9 lucky New Year’s food traditions
Three Kings Day
In large parts of Latin America, Three Kings Day is January 6, the day children receive gifts that echo the way, in biblical teaching, baby Jesus received gold, incense, and myrrh from the three visiting wise men – also called magic.
Another import from Spain to Latin America, the feast, also known as Holy Trinity, marks the moment in the Western Christian tradition in which God revealed his physical manifestation in the form of his Son, Jesus.
Children leave shoes at the door so the three kings know where to stop and put hay or grass under their bed for the camels of magic. In the morning, presents appear under the bed or under the Christmas tree, which is still up until at least January 7th.
Parties and family gatherings mark the day, as well as parades and festivals in major cities. In Mexico, families, friends and colleagues share the round Three Kings bread, or rosca de reyes, topped with candied fruits to represent a crown jewel. Whoever gets the empty long Jesus baby doll baked into it must make tamales for the upcoming Christian holiday Candlemas on February 2nd.