Christmas comes but once a year and it comes to different countries on different days. For example Greece and Russia follow the old, Orthodox calendar so Christmas comes about a fortnight later than in countries which use the Gregorian calendar. In many countries the main Christmas festivities may be on a day other than Christmas Day itself. This is often true of Spanish-speaking countries, which have a huge variety of festive traditions.
How to celebrate Christmas in Spanish-speaking countries
Christmas in Spain
The Christmas season officially starts on December 8th, which is the feast of the Immaculate Conception. In Seville there is a local tradition called Los Seises, which literally means “The Dance of Six”. The name presumably refers to the fact that in times gone by there were generally 6 young boys in each church choir and it was they who performed the dance originally. Now the ceremony involves 10 children. The next major highlight of the Christmas season is “El Gordo”, the special Christmas lottery which is held on December 22nd. Then it is time for the main Christmas celebration, which is actually held on Christmas Eve.
In most parts of Spain the special dinner will be turkey, usually with a truffle stuffing, but some regions have their own distinct traditions. For example, Galicia has a long history of fishing and so they often eat fish and seafood. After dinner, families head to midnight mass to see in Christmas Day itself. When the service is over people walk through the streets, carrying torches, making music and generally celebrating joyously. While children will probably get some presents on Christmas Day, they will get most of their gifts 12 days later on Epiphany or Twelfth Night. In Spain presents are brought by the 3 Wise Men rather than Santa. Children put their shoes out on window ledges or balconies for the Wise Men to fill with gifts and in token of thanks they leave out food and drink for the Wise Men (and their camels).
Christmas in Mexico
The Mexicans start their Christmas celebrations early, on December 16th in fact. This is the beginning of the 9 posadas which mark the countdown to Christmas. The posadas represent Mary and Joseph searching for a place to stay and being turned away each time. At each house the posada party is turned away, until they reach the end house, where they are welcomed. Prayers are said and then there is a party. Families take it in turn to host these posada parties. This goes on until Christmas Eve and then after the last party, have a special meal to celebrate Christmas before going to Midnight Mass. In the more northern parts of Mexico, Santa does his rounds on Christmas Eve but in the southern parts, people tend to keep to the older tradition of giving gifts at Epiphany.
Throughout Mexico, Epiphany is a day of celebration involving a special cake called Rosca del Reyes. It contains a tiny figure of the infant Jesus and whoever finds it becomes Jesus’ godparent for the year. Likewise Christmas trees are starting to be seen in Mexico, again mainly in the North, but even then they are often accompanies by beautiful and detailed nativity scenes. Nativity plays are also popular in Mexico, they are called Pastorelas and are often very funny. Although the main Christmas festivities end with Epiphany, the festive season only closes completely at Candlemas on the 2nd of February, which is often celebrated with one, final party.
Christmas in Venezuela
The unofficial start of Christmas in Venezuela is the day of Santa Barbara on December the 4th, this is about the time when the people of Venezuela spruce up their houses so that they look their absolute best when the Christmas decorations go up. Churches start running special services from about the 16th and in Caracas people often go to the morning service on roller skates. This has become such a tradition that roads are closed to accommodate it.
The real festivities get going on December 21st, which is usually the shortest day of the year and culminate on Christmas Eve. During this time there will be music, parties and fireworks. While Christmas trees (usually artificial) are making their way into Venezuela, the nativity scene is the main Christmas decoration. Unlike in many Spanish-speaking countries, Christmas Eve is the day for receiving gifts which are brought to children either by Saint Nicholas or by the Baby Jesus. This is also the day of a special meal, which is often based around meat, particularly pork, rather than turkey or other poultry. This will be followed by Midnight Mass. After Christmas Day itself, the festivities become somewhat quieter until they end with a final celebration on Epiphany.
Christmas in the U.S.A
There are many Spanish-speaking people in the U.S.A. Those whose heritage leads back to different countries in Latin America often continue those traditions in the U.S.A. There is, however, one part of the U.S.A. where Spanish is the official language and the culture is completely Latin American. It is, of course, Puerto Rico. The Christmas period is a huge festival in Puerto Rico and begins very early in December. This is the launch of parranda season which is a bit like Christmas carolling except instead of going from house to house, the carollers go to the specific house of someone they know to serenade them. The serenading generally starts fairly late at night (about 10PM) so as to make it as likely as possible that the householders are asleep. Once they are awake, the householder will invite the parranda group in for a party. Of course, people use a bit of discretion here and try only to go to houses where the hosts will be up for the fun and since people expect parrandas at this time of year, they will have supplies in to welcome them. The party usually lasts for an hour or so before the parranda group moves on (possibly with their hosts). They will aim to reach their last house around 3 or 4AM and the host at this house will end the parranda at dawn with a bowl of chicken soup.
Food is a big part of the Christmas celebrations in Puerto Rico and in particular for many Puerto Ricans, Christmas just would not be Christmas without at least one roast pig. This is essentially an all-day party with the cooking starting at around 4AM and guests arriving from late morning onwards. The host family will generally prepare side dishes to go with the pig and the guests will bring desserts. Traditionally in Puerto Rico, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day were religious days, albeit joyful ones and the day for giving gifts and riotous partying was Epiphany. Now the influence from the mainland U.S.A. has seen many Puerto Ricans move to giving gifts on Christmas Day, although Epiphany is still an important festival and increasingly is seen as marking the end of the Christmas period, although historically festivies continued until Candlemas in February.
Spanish Christmas vocabulary list
- Nochebuena – Christmas Eve
- La Misa del Gallo – Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. Gallo means cockerel and refers to the cockerel which crowed when Jesus was born.
- El día de la Navidad – Christmas Day
- El Niño Jesus – The infant Jesus
- Feliz Navidad – Merry Christmas
- Fiesta de los tres Reyes Mages – Epiphany or Twelfth Night (January 6th).
- Vacaciones de Navidad – Christmas holidays
- Regalos (de Navidad) – (Christmas) presents
- Papá Noel – Santa
- Oro, incienso y mirra – gold, frankincense and myrrh
- Tarjeta de Navidad – Christmas card
- Árbol de navidad – Christmas tree
- Adornos de Navidad – Christmas decorations
- El belén – Nativity scene
- Pesebre – Literally means manger, but can refer to the crib in a nativity scene. In Latin America it can to the figures in the nativity scene and by extension to the whole scene itself.