The “winter” holidays in Latin America are made up of factors that are fundamental elements to most seasonal traditions – eating, drinking, dancing and spending time with loved ones.
However, to understand how each country in the region developed their own unique traditions, one must look to culture. Whereas culture describes shared characteristics of a group, traditions are beliefs and behaviours which are passed down from one generation to the next.
As Latin American countries share colonial roots, cultures have evolved that include influences from Christianity. Both the Portuguese and the Spanish were Catholics, and as they founded their colonies, they enforced their beliefs on the natives. In Jamaica and Belize, the British brought branches of Protestantism with them, establishing Christian but alternative cultures.
Nevertheless, as time has gone by, the mix of peoples in each country including the colonisers, natives and those that were taken by the slave trade has merged. This has led to a vibrant array of cultures in the region which is reflected in their celebrations.
Colombia is a vibrant and lively country all year around, but its unique and fascinating traditions make it an especially remarkable place during the holiday season. The holidays last for a month and are closely tied to religion. Cities seem to transform, with each street being decorated with colourful lights known as “alumbrados”. These Christmas lights are typically displayed across buildings and around the city’s plazas, churches and parks.
The celebrations begin with “Little Candles Day” on the 7th of December, where everyone gathers at night to light dozens of colourful candles. Then, nine days before Christmas, the Novenas start, where families and friends get together each day until Christmas to pray, sing and eat. Christmas is celebrated on the night of the 24th, where adults exchange presents and children receive their gifts from “baby Jesus”.
Each region has their own typical food during the Christmas dinner. However, one thing which is always present on the dinner table is “buñuelos” – a round, crispy (yet soft) fried dough that can be found in every street corner.
As New Year’s Eve arrives, the celebration reaches its peak. Lively music is played while people dance and drink rum and aguardiente in the streets. Meanwhile, fireworks are seen throughout the entire night.
Cuba, as most of Latin America, is predominantly Catholic. Yet, due to its revolutionary history, Cuba somewhat differs from the regional standard in terms of the influence of religion on society.
In the light of the Cuban state proclaiming itself atheist in the early 1960’s, Christmas was formally banned in 1969. In 1992, the state shifted from atheist to secular and the ban was later lifted after the visit of Pope John Paul II, who held mass in Havana’s Revolution Square in 1998. Therefore, a whole generation of Cubans grew up without celebrating Christmas, but it has returned to the island in recent decades.
The main highlights of the holidays are “Nochebuena” and New Year’s Eve. Nochebuena falls on the 24th of December and is similar to Christmas Eve, but with the main focus being on family and food.
The Nochebuena feast usually includes slow cooking a whole pig over an open fire, which is then served with rice, black beans and fried plantains (cooking bananas). This is also tradition on New Year’s Eve, when people later head out in the streets to dance, drink rum and celebrate. New Year’s also coincides with Liberation Day on the 1st of January, which celebrates the triumph of the 1959 Cuban Revolution.
Clara Sofia Bohoquez Toro, Philippa Scholz and Julian Dannefjord