Tuesday, December 20, 2011

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 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. Since then, I've adopted some of the following Christmas traditions into my own celebrations, and I love that I can travel the world in one day and remember the wonderful friendships I've made over the years. Here's what my friends taught me:

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. December 16th marks 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 1700s, 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 up during these celebrations. As an act of good will, churches and generous people make choclotadas (cups of hot chocolate) and give gifts to those less fortunate.

Venezuela: On December 16, families display their pesebres. (They’re called the same in Colombia.) At dawn on Christmas Eve, church bells chime and firecrackers explode to wake up all the worshippers. 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 windowsills 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's a welcome relief. The focus is on family and friends and celebrating beliefs that at times combine modern-day religion and the traditions of the ancestors. Santa and his presents are 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.

Christmas is one of my favorite times of the year because of the beautiful friendships I've made. I now celebrate these with my husband and our children, and I hope that as my kids get older and explore the world, they'll find their own favorite holiday traditions.
How about you? Have you adopted favorite traditions from other cultures to make your celebration of any holiday more special?


  1. Alli, what fun to see the variations in South American Christmas celebrations. Commercialization of Christmas has exploded in the past forty years in Italy, but it seems a bit more subdued this year. That is a relief, too.

  2. Thanks Patricia. I imagine Christmas in Italy would be an unforgettable experience.

  3. Such interesting traditions (including some of the overlaps), Alli, as well as a great story on how you learned the true spirit of Christmas. (I'll bet you were a real grinch before that, huh? ;)

    I don't know if it's the economic downturn everywhere, but I've been hearing a lot of nostalgic stories this year on how "spare" Christmas is celebrated in other cultures. A Vietnamese friend who lives in the States just told me that in her mother's house, they celebrate the holiday but without a tree or much fanfare. One year, when her daughters spent the holiday with Grandma, the delighted kids woke up to find gifts stashed under their pillows. They asked whether Santa and the tooth fairy are related... (which gave my inquisitive kids reason to wonder as well.)