Although Peru has a strong indigenous population, the majority of Peruvians are Roman Catholic and it should therefore come as no surprise that Christmas celebrations in Peru are very important.
While some celebrations are similar to those in North America and Europe, there are some unique traditions that reflect the nation’s history and make Peru a truly unique place to be during the festivities – and one that makes for a special holiday destination.
Traditional Peruvian Christmas
Christmas traditions in Peru date all the way back to 1535. December 24 is called La Noche Buena, or “Good Night”, and is the most important day for Christmas celebrations. During Noche Buena, religion plays a central role with the ‘misa de gallo’ (Rooster’s Mass) beginning at 22:00 in Peru, which is still slightly earlier than in some other South American countries.
Following the mass at around midnight, families return to their homes to begin with the traditional Christmas celebrations including a large roast turkey dinner, before exchanging gifts and watching the fireworks that often can be seen lighting up the night sky of the main towns and cities of Peru. Sometimes however and particularly in Peru’s Andean region, gifts are not changed until the Day of the Three Kings or Epiphany on January 6th.
Andean Christmas and Llamas in nativity scenes
Nowadays, it is becoming more and more common to see Christmas trees in the center of Peru’s larger city squares, however, many Peruvian households still opt for the more traditional ‘retablo’ (nativity scene) instead of a Christmas tree. The more popular retablos are the centerpieces of unique Christmas decorations in Peru, and are extremely impressive and ornate.
Retablos are particularly relevant in Peru’s history as priests used these to initially try to convert the indigenous population to Catholicism. Nowadays, they simply depict the nativity scene and people use them to celebrate Christmas with their own Peruvian touches.
At first glance these wood, pottery or stone nativity scenes may seem completely normal with nothing out of the ordinary. However, if you take a closer look, you’ll notice that many of the animals used in Peruvian nativity scenes are llamas and alpacas instead of sheep and goats and also feature an Andean Mary and Joseph.
Peru is a foodie’s dream – especially during Christmas!
Peru is the gastronomic capital of Latin America and Peruvian food is nowadays considered as one of the best cuisines in the world. With food always playing an important role in Christmas celebrations around the world, Peruvian Christmas goes one step further and is a foodie’s idea of heaven.
As well as having the more traditional roast turkey, salads and sides of apple sauce, the Peruvian gastronomic flare can also be found in the form of typical local additions. The corn dough based tamales are a favorite and often served with a spicy aji hot sauce on the side. For dessert it is common to eat paneton, a Peruvian fruit cake. And as the adults clink their champagne glasses, children drink hot chocolate made fresh using rich dark chocolate, as well as cinnamon and cloves to give it that all important Peruvian twist.
While you may prefer to go for a more traditional Christmas dinner in Peru, the mouth-watering flavors of ceviche and fresh seafood may tempt you to add a twist to your feast, especially when celebrating in Lima.
A celebration like no other
After dinner on Christmas Eve, many take to the streets to greet friends and neighbors or to simply continue celebrating. While they are technically illegal in some parts of Peru, fireworks are abundant and can be seen throughout the night in many cities and towns. After the children finish opening their presents and view the light show, it is time for them to head to bed.
This is when the real celebrations begin for adults as they push away house furniture and put on their dancing shoes to salsa the night away. These parties can last into the early morning, and for that reason December 25 is often quiet and uneventful.
There is however one annual festival that is usually held on December 25th that breaks up this peaceful atmosphere – as it includes dancing and even fighting! The indigenous tradition is called ´Takanakuy´, which is a Quechua word for ´to hit each other´. Participants pair off, wrap their hands and exchange a hug, then the fighting begins. The tradition is said to settle disputes so everyone can start the New Year with a clean slate, but often people will join in just for the sport.
Cusco is the place to be for a beautiful & traditional Christmas
If you are traveling to Peru during the holiday season, Christmas is an especially beautiful time to be in Cusco, the former capital of the Inca Empire. Located at over 3,352m (11,000ft) above sea level, Cusco will also surely be one of the highest cities you will have ever celebrated Christmas in. The festive spirit begins in Cusco around December 10 when nativity animals made from lights begin to appear in the city’s main square, the Plaza de Armas.
The week preceding Christmas is when everyone can give back a little to the local community as organizations and churches organize the typical ‘chocolatadas’ and wealthier members of the community contribute by offering poor(er) children hot chocolate and toys. The lines for chocolatadas are a distinct feature of Christmas in Cusco, and it is something to look out for or you may even offer to give a helping hand.
Every year on December 24, the fascinating Santurantikuy market, which when translated from the local Quechua language means ‘the buying of saints’, takes place. Since the 16th century, local families from Cusco and the Sacred Valley descend on Cusco’s main square to buy the final few pieces for their nativity scenes, clothes for baby Jesus (most people believe ´el niño Jesús´ should change his dress every year) as well as enjoy some local snacks and a warm alcoholic drink known as ‘ponche’ which is made using Pisco, hot milk, egg, sugar and a dash of cinnamon.
Even if you are not religious, it is difficult to not get caught up in the beauty of Christmas in Peru. It is a great time to immerse yourself in the culture and local traditions. Traveling during the Christmas holidays can be a fantastic way to experience life in Peru but just be prepared, as it is for example very uncommon for stores to be open on Christmas Day and it might be important to get your necessities in advance of the holiday(s).