5 Fun Latin American Holiday Traditions

5 things you should know about holidays in Latin America
By Natalie Lefevre

Hola estudiantes! Going somewhere warm for this holiday season? Whether you’re traveling to Latin America or just wishing you were, here are 5 fun Latin American holiday traditions for Christmas and New Years. If you can’t go south for the holidays, maybe you can follow some of these traditions, and bring a little of Latin America home to you? Either way, I wish the happiest of holidays to you and yours! 

If you find yourself in Latin America for the holiday season, there are a few things you should know if you don’t want to appear like a total gringo. First of all, leave behind those ugly Christmas sweaters and take a bikini and shorts—it is high summer in the Southern hemisphere. A mojito or caipirinha (Brazil’s national cocktail, made with cane sugar and lime) are more appropriate Christmas drinks than eggnog or mulled wine.

But even though many Latin Americans celebrate the holidays on the beach, it doesn’t stop them from trying to create the same white-winter Christmas atmosphere that we in the North are used to: fake snow, fake pine trees, fake fireplaces and so on. Just think of the poor guy that has to dress up as Santa Claus in 90-degree weather! But while Christmas and New Year’s celebrations in Latin America have borrowed a lot from North American celebrations (blame Hollywood!), there are still plenty of interesting surprises for visitors. Here are 5 fun Latin American holiday traditions:

  • Christmas celebrations are not just one day

Does this really surprise anyone? Latinos know how to celebrate, so why would it be any different on what may be the year’s most important holiday? If you also consider that Latin America is one of the most Christian regions in the world, you can imagine how big a deal this is.

In many Latin American countries, there is a particularly interesting tradition: in the 9 days leading up to Christmas, representing the 9 months of Mary’s pregnancy, people re-enact Joseph and Mary’s search for lodging. There are regional differences, but generally, it consists of a large group gathering at the ‘Inn’ to pray and sing; then, two people dressed as Joseph and Mary knock on the door; eventually, they are invited inside, and join everyone else in singing and praying around the nativity scene.

  • Christmas Eve

In Latin America, the main event is not on the 25th but on the evening of the 24th, Christmas Eve. However, if you are invited to a Christmas Eve dinner, don’t skip lunch and don’t arrive at dinnertime. Being a more devoutly Christian culture, many Latin Americans don’t have dinner until after the Midnight Mass—and even those that don’t attend church still usually start eating around midnight.

If, when midnight strikes, it sounds outside like World War III just broke out, don’t be scared—this is just the entire neighborhood shooting off fireworks from rooftops, parks, or the street just a few feet away from your car. There are practically no safety regulations for fireworks, which obviously leads to many accidents each year, mainly involving children.

  • Latin Americans are very superstitious

Just like anywhere else in the world, New Year’s Eve is the biggest party of the year. But it might also require a bit more preparation for Latinos—not just because of outfits or make-up, but because, if you want your upcoming year to be filled with luck, love and money, it all depends on a few small, absolutely crucial details.

  • First, you’ll need to go and buy new yellow (yes, yellow) underwear to wear when the clock strikes midnight. Alternatively, if you are still looking for the love of your life or you just want more passion in your relationship, you can go for red.
  • Make sure you have 12 grapes at hand if you want 12 months of good luck. The tradition was originally to eat one grape per strike of the clock, but who actually still has a clock that strikes? Now, you can just eat them all at once when the clock strikes midnight.
  • If you want to make some serious money next year, you not only need to have the right underwear and eat 12 grapes at the strike of midnight, but you’ll also need to put down that glass of champagne and hold something increasingly rare these days: cash. It has not been proven whether holding a debit or credit card works, too—so better not to take any chances, and make sure to hit the ATM on the 31st.
  • Don’t be surprised if you see people walking around the block with suitcases at midnight. They didn’t necessarily have one too many beers, it just means that they really want to travel this year. If you finally want to go on that safari but you’re too lazy to go all the way around the block, some claim that running around the house or even just inside in a circle should work as well. It is believed that you need to pack objects related to your desired destination: a bikini if you want to go to the beach, ski goggles if you want to go skiing, or, if you want to go on safari, a safari hat.
  • This next New Years tradition is very important for you to be aware of: in some Latin American countries, people throw buckets or glasses of water out the door or window. The water symbolizes all the tears of the past year; by throwing it out, they get rid of the negativity and suffering they represents. Even if you don’t share the superstition, believe this: watch out when walking past houses on New Year’s Eve!
  • Blow up ‘the old guy’

There are different versions of this tradition, but the main idea is the same: Burning or blowing up (often with dynamite) life-sized old-man rag dolls, which symbolize the old year. Blowing up ‘el viejo’ ensures a fresh start in the new year and rids it of the past year’s negativity. In some countries, these dolls are made to look like politicians or other infamous personalities of that year. It is strongly recommended not to try this yourself!

  • The Party

If you’ve never been to a Latino party, you’re in for a treat. First of all, be prepared to answer some inappropriate questions about why you’re still single or when you’re getting married to your date. Secondly, it will definitely not be an intimate get-together with some family or friends. Everyone will be there. It will be big and loud, people raising their voices to make their point over the music blasting to get the party started. There is no way anyone will let you leave the party before it’s technically already morning again. And you’ll most likely go home with days of leftovers to accompany your hangover.

This mix of novel and familiar traditions is guaranteed to leave you with many interesting memories and stories to tell back home. Remember—just wear your yellow underwear on New Year’s Eve and you’ll be fine!

Natalie is an American expat living in Lima, Peru with her Peruvian husband. She has been learning Spanish since she was 16 years old. Besides writing for various online resources, she also manages her own responsible tourism agency.
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