The Makings of a Feliz Navidad! Latin and Spanish Christmas Celebrations

Latin traditions, manger, pesebre

Many people around the world deck the halls and exchange gifts on Christmas Day, but Spanish and Latino celebrations begin well before December 25, often lasting through the first week of January!  Let’s explore some of the festive ways Christmas is celebrated around the world… the Latin world, that is. 

A Full Season of Celebrations

Since more than 75% of Latin Americans and Spaniards are Catholic, celebrations tend to revolve around the nativity and religious observations. Christmas trees are common, but the main feature is the pesebre or nativity scene.  In addition to the nativity, music, food, and parties are highlights of the season!  


Christmas preparations begin on the evening of December 7 which is known as Día de las Velitas or Day of the Little Candles. On this night families gather and houses are decorated with lights, lanterns, and lots of candles placed on window sills, sidewalks, etc.  The most spectacular Christmas lights displays are in Medellín at an event called El Alumbrado, ranked as one of the top five lights displays in the world!  Colombians celebrate the nine days leading up to Christmas Eve with novenas, where families get together nightly to pray, sing Christmas carols and read passages from the Bible. The whole family is included and it often happens around the pesebre.

Puerto Rico

Music is a holiday highlight on this island!  You’ll hear songs called aguinaldos as people like to go carol singing at carnival-like street parties called parrandas, gathering late in the evening and visiting different houses through the night. The singers (los parranderos) surprise people and wake them up with their songs.  The custom is that when you’ve been woken up, you must join the parranda and it will grow as the evening progresses and more party-goers join in! The fun often lasts until dawn!


In the evenings before Christmas Eve, children take part in a tradition called “pedir el aguinaldo” where they sing carols around their neighborhoods in hopes of receiving small gifts of coins or sweets!


You’ll hear a traditional folk music style called gaita and see lots of fireworks!  They also sing aguinaldos and parrandas and gather around the Nativity scene.

Costa Rica

Homes are decorated with beautiful tropical flowers and the nativity scene (which they call el pasito or el portal) is the center of their display. Some are very complex and take effort from the whole family to complete!

Mexico, Guatemala, and other Central American countries

Las posadas, latin christmas traditions, spanish immersion preschool

People participate in the celebration of Las Posadas for the nine nights leading up to Christmas Eve.  Las Posadas is a reenactment of Joseph and Mary looking for lodging prior to Jesus’ birth.  They walk from house to house, singing a special song which asks for shelter at each stop. They’re told that there is no room in the house and they must go on to the next. Eventually, on Christmas Eve, they are welcomed in the house, baby Jesus is placed in the manger, and everyone prays. This is when the party begins with great food, games, a piñata and fireworks!

Traditional Holiday Flavors

Latin Christmas Food, Latin Christmas traditions, Latin culture

Of course, traditional foods are a big part of the preparations and parties!  In most countries you can find roasted pork, turkey, and some variety of tamales made during the holidays, but you’ll also find delicious dishes that are unique to each country.  

Popular Mexican dishes include pozole (a thick soup made of hominy, pork/chicken, and chilies), and a special salad called ensalada nochebuena. For dessert they enjoy warm buñuelos which are fried treats topped with sugar, cinnamon, and hot sugar syrup! Rosca de Reyes or Three Kings Cake is very popular. There is a Baby Jesus hidden inside the cake. Whoever has the baby Jesus in their slice is said to be the “godparent” of Jesus that year. 

Venezuelans eat hallacas (their version of tamales) and pan de jamón

In Puerto Rico the main Christmas dish is lechón asado (slow roasted pork) served with their famous arroz con gandules (rich with pigeon peas), tostones (fried plantains), and pasteles (like tamales).  Lots of Puerto Rico desserts involve coconut –  like arroz con dulce (sweet rice pudding), tembleque (a custard with coconut milk), and a favorite eggnog-style drink called coquito

In Colombia the main Christmas Eve meal often includes lechona (roasted pork stuffed with rice and peas) and ajiaco (a traditional soup). Buñuelos (cheesy fritters) are all the rage. Dessert called hojuelas and natilla are popular too. See our previous post for some recipes!

Since December is warm in South America, the main holiday meal in Argentina is often a barbecue served outside on the patio or garden.  Argentinians feast as late as 10-11 pm. Some of their popular dishes include veal and torre de panqueques (a sandwich cake made from several layers of tortillas with different fillings.)

Nochebuena and El Niño Dios

skating venezuelans, nochebuena, latin christmas celebrations

Christmas Eve is one of the biggest celebrations of the season.  It’s known as Nochebuena and this night is indeed buena!  You wouldn’t believe the size and duration of Latin holiday parties! 

Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve is known as “La misa de gallo” (the Mass of the rooster) as it’s said that a rooster crowed the night before Jesus was born.  Latin countries have some interesting activities that take place before or after Mass. In Argentina, the skies are lit with paper lanterns and fireworks.  In Venezuela, some people don roller skates and skate to their churches! That’s right, many roller skate in plazas or closed off roads in parties called patinatas

In most Latin countries it’s common to open gifts on Christmas Eve. Most people open gifts from el Niño Dios (baby Jesus), instead of Santa Claus. In Early December, children are encouraged to write a letter to baby Jesus to ask for their gifts. In Mexico and other countries, this letter is delivered by placing it in the pesebre

The Twelve Days of Christmas… and More!

Latin traditions new years eve, cultural traditions,

Just when you thought the festivities were over, many Latin countries continue the fiestas!  Just like the traditional “12 Days of Christmas” that start on Christmas Day, in Latin America, the festivities continue through Epiphany (January 6). 

New Year’s Eve is a time for many fun and different traditions, like wearing yellow on New Year’s Eve for good luck in the year ahead. Eating 12 grapes at midnight also brings you luck for each month of the upcoming year.

As the culmination of the holidays, Epiphany (the day of the Three Wise Men, or El Día de los Reyes Magos) is perhaps the most important day of the season.  It celebrates the coming of the three wise men who brought gifts to baby Jesus. Children leave shoes outside their doors in hopes that the three kings bring gifts for them. 

Sharing the Joy with Our Students

Reyes Magos gifts, Spanish Schoolhouse, dia de los reyes magos

A core part of our mission at Spanish Schoolhouse is to not only raise bilingual children but to broaden their perspective of the world and encourage them to appreciate different customs.  Each year, we celebrate several of these Latin traditions with our students. For instance, they leave their shoes out to see if the three kings made it all the way to Texas! Our December shows feature many of the songs and dances described above.  If you’d like to start some of these traditions with your family at home, here are some fun ideas

We’d love to hear about your favorite holiday traditions.  Please share in the comment section below! 


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