When we think of Christmas and the holidays, the majority of us envision a house full of relatives on a cold and snowy morning. As kids we would try to get some if any sleep the night before, our minds occupied by what could be under the tree. Heck, even at 20 I was a bit restless thinking of what high tech toys I would receive or even gift myself. But Christmas customs in Peru hit you different, maybe it’s the weather or the food, or just the warm holiday spirit Peruvians have in general.
Unique Christmas Customs in Peru
These traditional scenes of Christmas have very little in common with Christmas customs in Peru. And although I have always celebrated the holidays with a mix of both the Peruvian and American versions of Christmas, this year I was able to celebrate it in Peru among my family and friends with all the excitement of my first Christmas in Peru.
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To begin I must explain that Christmas in Peru is celebrated at exactly 12:00 AM on January 25th. The family begins arriving around 11pm on the 24th. Traditionally turkey or ham is prepared as the main Christmas meal. There is a calm leading up to midnight, family members greet each other as they begin to arrive.
Salsa music begins to echo through the house, the artists singing their own creative mix of holiday songs, a favorite of mine being “Aires de Navidad” by Hector Lavoe. Five minutes to 12 and you can begin to hear the first firecrackers exploding throughout the neighborhood, and although it might seem outrages to us westerners it is common to see 5 year old’s throwing firecrackers into the air as the streets explode at the strike of 12.
And so the celebration that is Christmas begins in a country where 89% of the population is Christian. The thunderous applause of a Christian nation can seem overwhelming as the firework tribute to the birth of Jesus lasts approximately half an hour at its peak. Fireworks are continuously heard through the evening of the 25th. Shortly afterward hugs and kisses and the customary “Feliz Navidad” as family members gather around a nativity scene, the children tare into their gifts, as it is only them who receive them. It seems older folk are left to break open the champagne or wine bottles and toast the night away.
At the nativity scene (which all families construct and try so hard to out do one another with) the family gathers as a baby Jesus is brought out to take his place as the focal point of the midnight celebration. The Christmas meal is then served to a hungry family which is used to eating supper around 7pm. Depending on the circumstances Christmas parties can last throughout the night. It is also customary to leave your door open as your neighbors and friends pop in to say hello and receive their slice of Panettone (sweet bread) and hot chocolate, preferably beer or wine is handed out.
Christmas Day in Peru is spent lazily toasting to the day, remember that it is summer in Peru and the temperature is a lovely 70 degrees, perfect for going to the beach or playing a game of volleyball or fulbito (futsal) with the neighbors. As for me, I believe I was up till about 7 am having a few beers with my cousins. Yes, Christmas customs in Peru are very different then from American traditions, I guess Americans just like their sleep.
Celebrating both versions I can say that the traditional South American Christmas is a little more lively then its northern counterpart. As an example you might find it rare to find a night club open and packed on Christmas night as opposed to in Peru where they are open until the last clients leave, usually around 8 – 9 am.
New Years on the other hand is very similar to festivities worldwide as it is primarily an adult celebration and is centered around parties. At 12 fireworks once again fill the streets with the only difference in customs being that in Peru you gather up all your old clothes to create an effigy and burn it at 12am. In a way you are burning past burdens and the old year away and bringing in the new. Now had I brought more clothes in from the states I would have probably contributed to this truly unique Peruvian custom.
Founder of Karikuy, an organization in Peru that brings travelers to visit and explore the country. Julio also runs the Karikuy Volunteer program and is the editor of this blog. Julio likes to write about his adventures in Peru as well as Peruvian folklore, mysteries and secluded locations.