A nativity scene

In Peru, Christmas Eve is known as Noche Buena, which means “Good Night.” All of the Christmas celebrations take place on Christmas Eve and continue on into the very early hours of Christmas Day.

Throughout December there are social events called chocolatadas where people gather to drink hot chocolate and socialize with one another. Churches and other community-minded organizations host chocolatadas for poor communities, giving free hot chocolate, panetón, and donated gifts to families, allowing them to join the festivities as well.  

Each Christmas Eve in the city of Cusco’s main square, the annual Santuranticuy, literally “the selling of saints”, is held. The Santuranticuy is a temporary market that brings artists from around the county to sell handcrafted nativity figures and scenery, saints, icons, and other homemade wares. You can expect to find statuettes of the baby Jesus, Mary, Joseph, the magi, among other important people in Catholic theology.

Peru is predominantly Roman Catholic, and on Christmas Eve Peruvian Catholics attend a midnight mass service known as Misa de Gallo, or the Mass of the Rooster. Surrounding nations’ midnight mass services tend to begin at midnight and last until the break of day, when the rooster crows. In Peru, the mass begins around 10 PM, and lasts until midnight. Afterwards, families return home to begin the Christmas festivities. 

Some Peruvians decorate plastic Christmas trees, as pine trees don’t grow in Peru. But the most important piece in Peruvian households during the Christmas season is the nativity scene. Living rooms are centered around the nativity scene, which can be so large that it fills the entire room. Families lavishly decorate the scene with lights, stars, figures of Mary, Joseph, the magi, and scenery like trees and cattle. Some even add a Peruvian twist, replacing biblical animals with the more endemic llamas and alpacas. While the scene is set up early in the month with the rest of the decorations, the manger remains empty until midnight on Christmas Eve. Once the clock strikes midnight, one member of the family, usually the youngest child, is chosen to place the baby Jesus in the manger to represent his birth. 

Retablos are small three-dimensional scenes carved from wood, stone, or pottery, and painted to depict historic scenes of religious importance, or pastoral scenes from everyday life. These retablos are contained in rectangular boxes with two doors on the front to reveal the scene. Around the Christmas season, retablos depicting the nativity scene are especially common.

Once the nativity scene is completed, the champagne is popped, and fireworks light up across the country. Families open presents together and begin the Christmas dinner. The main course is typically a large roast turkey or lechón, or roast suckling pig, though it depends on where you are in Peru; Coastal communities enjoy fish, the Andean highlands use more varied meats, and families in the jungle prefer to roast a wild chicken instead. These are served alongside applesauce and homemade tamales. For dessert, the ever popular panetón, an Italian sweet bread filled with raisins and candied fruits, is a staple. Panetón is always eaten with hot chocolate, which is often homemade with dark chocolate and cinnamon. Once the feast is finished, house parties keep the festivities going well into the night. 

As all the Christmas celebrations conclude the night before, December 25th marks the annual fights of Takanakuy (literally “to hit each other”.) People gather in cities around the nation to settle disputes and old conflicts, let off steam, and to prove who’s the toughest. During the ceremony, combatants dress as one of five different traditional “characters” based on Andean cultural symbols. 

Some in the Andean region open gifts on January 6th, during Epiphany, or the Adoración de Reyes Magos (the Adoration of the Magi Kings), a day which commemorates the magi who visited the baby Jesus.

Holiday Traditions in Peru

Video by Pamela Arana

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