All you need to know to spend Christmas in Peru
If you’re thinking of spending Christmas in Peru, before you go, you’ll need to start practising how to say Feliz Navidad. Yes, that’s Merry Christmas in Spanish and apart form por favor and gracias, they are the two most important words you’ll need to learn.
If you live on a continent which associates Christmas with snow and Santa Claus, you’re probably wondering if they even celebrate Christmas in the South American country of Peru? Well, yes, they do, but the Peruvian traditions and celebrations are just that little bit different to the European or American ones. Even though December is summertime in Peru, believe it, the warm climate doesn’t put anyone off enjoying the festivities.
How Does Peru Celebrate Christmas
Peru celebrates Christmas on the 24th of December. Known as Noche Buena in Spanish, it’s time when most Peruvian families get together to enjoy the seasonal celebrations. Though don’t be mistaken in thinking that Peruvians wake up to find a host of presents under the tree on the morning of the 24th, it doesn’t quite work like that. During the daytime, apart from some heavy duty preparations, nothing much happens. The tradition in Peru is to wait until the evening before commencing with the festivities.
Christmas in Peru begins when it’s time to attend the misa. Similar to midnight mass, just a little earlier, the Misa de Gallo takes place at ten o’clock. Most people attend their local neighbourhood church for the prayer service. It’s not just a religious event, but also a very social event too. It’s a time to catch up with friends and neighbours and to wish them all a feliz navidad. Once the misa is over, all hell lets loose as fireworks and noisy petardos, or firecrackers, explode in the streets. They’re a sure sign that, yes, Christmas has definitely started.
Peru Christmas Decorations
While most of the world are decking the halls with boughs of holly and shaking out the tinsel trimmings from the year before, that isn’t always the case in Peru. Christmas trees are becoming increasingly popular, but the more traditional Christmas decoration in Peru is the belen or nativity scene. Some can be so large they take up a whole room and take several days to put together. Most families take great pride in their exquisitely handcrafted nativity figurines and often hand them down from generation to generation.
The belen is a major focus of the Christmas celebration in many Peruvian homes. The unpacking of the pieces which constitute the nativity scene is a sign that Christmas really is on its way. Constructing it and placing the figures in their strategic places is a very family affair in which everyone joins in. Yes, there can be frequent, but good natured debates on which piece goes where. It’s not uncommon for figures to mysteriously change positions during the night time either. One thing which doesn’t change though is the crib which stays empty until midnight on Christmas Eve. It’s also an honour, often reserved for the youngest member of the family, to be the one who places the baby Jesus in the crib to complete the scene.
Peruvian Christmas Food
After the misa and fireworks are over, it’s time to go home and eat. Christmas dinner in Peru can be quite a late affair with most families sitting down to eat at around or just before midnight.
Every family has their favorite Christmas food and a Christmas dinner in Peru can be comprised of many different things. While you’ll find turkey on the table in some Peruvian homes, it’s much more traditional for the roast meat to be a suckling pig or a pork or poultry joint stuffed with either fruits or vegetables depending on whether the family prefer a sweet or savory filling. Rice is a popular accompaniment and is usually mixed with lots of tasty ingredients to make it extra special. Garlic, chopped apricots, mango and spinach are popular and very flavorsome additions.
What comes after the Peruvian Christmas feast?
Peruvian Family Traditions
It’s traditional in Peru to exchange gifts, typically just small presents on the night of the twenty fourth after dinner is over. Not even the children expect a sackful from Santa on Noche Buena. The main arrival of gifts for the younger generation doesn’t occur until the Dia de los Reyes Magos, or Three Kings Day, on the 6th of January which for the children is even more exciting than waiting for Santa. After the gift giving, it’s time for cake and hot chocolate to end the evening for the young ones at least.
Don’t think the hot chocolate is a quick warming up of some milk with a couple of spoons of instant cocoa powder thrown in. It’s not. Peruvian hot chocolate is a little more elaborate than that and especially at Christmas when many families have their own blend of ingredients which make it just that little bit more special. The addition of cinnamon, orange peel or cloves to the basic block chocolate and hot milk make it super tasty treat and a very popular Christmas tradition in Peru. So popular it’s made by the pan full rather than in an individual cup. The hot chocolate is usually accompanied with generous slices of a genoese sponge cake called Paneton which can be plain or have dried fruit or even chocolate chips added.
Once the children are asleep it’s time for the adults to let their hair down a little with a few drinks and quite often some music. Drinks could be anything from beer to whiskey to Pisco a type of Peruvian aguardiente. Guaranteed most family parties will carry on socialising into the early hours of the morning and after a drink or two, the table will pushed back and everyone will join in tripping the light fandango until dawn.
Don’t expect an early start to December the 25th. It’s the morning for a long lay in after the night before. Though it might not be as quiet as most adults would like as there’s usually quite a few petardos left over from the previous nights celebration. That’s all part of Christmas and another one of Peru’s holiday traditions. Feliz Navidad!