Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Feliz Navidad

I spent my first Christmas away from Australia in South America. I had figured it wouldn’t be dissimilar from the Land of the Long Weekend. After all, South America was in the same hemisphere, and experiencing 40 degrees C on Christmas Day wasn’t unheard of at home either. Catholicism was common in Australia, as in South America, so really, how different could things be? You’ve got it—our traditions were poles apart. I was living in Peru at the time and had the pleasure of celebrating with friends from various parts of the globe, including many South American countries. We decided to group together our Christmas traditions and make it one big cultural mash-up. And here’s what I learnt:

Colombia: The nativity scene is made of clay figures, known as pesebres. The Mary and Joseph figurines wear traditional Colombian attire, such as a poncho, fedora hat and shawl. El Dia de las Velitas (Day of the Candles) is held on the seventh of December and that’s when Advent prayers start. On 16th December is the start of La Novena de Aguinaldos, a prayer that is said over nine successive days up until Christmas Eve. These prayers tell what happened during the nine month pregnancy of Mary and Joseph. This Colombian tradition dates back to the 1700’s and little has changed since the first prayer was said.

Peru: Nativity scenes are called retablos. Historically, priests carried small altars from house to house with a nativity scene similar to the one in Colombia. Nowadays priests use portable boxes instead (I guess their muscles got tired). Dances and plays are put on throughout the festive season and traditional Peruvian food is served during these celebrations. As an act of good will, churches and generous people make choclotadas (cups of hot chocolate) and give gifts to those to the less fortunate.

Venezuela: On December 16, families display their pesebres. (They’re called the same in Colombia.) At dawn, church bells chime and firecrackers explode to wake up all the worshippers on Christmas Eve. On the 5th of January, children leave out hay and water for the camels of the Magi (the wise men) and in the morning they find their offerings are replaced by gifts. If the children wake up and have a black smudge on their cheek, they believe that Balthazar, King of the Ethiopians, kissed them while they were asleep.

Ecuador: Children write letters to baby Jesus and place their shoes on their windowsill on Christmas Eve. The next morning, the children usually awake to find noise-making toys in their footwear. Firecrackers, brass bands, and dancing in the streets are popular and most families attend Midnight Mass.

Brazil: Christmas is influenced by the Jesuit monks. But, over the years, Brazil has adapted many North American traditions, which means the old traditions are falling by the wayside.

In South America, the commercialism of Christmas is no way near the frantic extent it is in other parts of the world, and to be honest, it was a welcome relief. The focus was on family, friends and celebrating beliefs, which at times, are a combination of modern-day religion and the traditions of their ancestors. Santa and presents is not the be all and end all. For me, I found the true spirit of Christmas in South America.

The mother of my “adopted” family in Peru did a great deal of volunteer work for the children’s hospital and a psychiatric home for children in Lima. On Christmas morning, she invited me to join her in her own Christmas Day tradition—handing out presents to children at the hospital and psychiatric home who either had no family or were so poor their family couldn’t afford gifts. Armed with sweets and books we set off. I had no idea this particular morning would be the one that changed my whole view of Christmas. Previously I had thought it was one commercial rip-off. But in that moment, when I was surrounded by children who just wanted a hug and were happy to see someone show them some love, I finally got what it was all about.

How about you? Through learning about another culture have you changed the way you view a familiar tradition?


  1. One of my favorite Christmases was in Austria, where the holiday is less commercial than in many countries (or it was at the time I lived there). I'd spend hours at the Christmas Market (Christkindlemarkt) where you could buy anything from portraits of the saints to mulled wine. And listen to Christmas carols in the nearby cathedral. And learn to run fast to escape Krampus, the masked figure who hangs about the streets with a bundle of sticks to beat young women with. I'm not a religious person, but Christmas has never felt quite the same since.

  2. Um, Krampus sounds a little creepy...