Holidays in Latin America celebrate faith, family and community in a festive, sometimes whimsical, style. Traditions range from waking people up with Christmas songs in the middle of the night to sculpting massive radishes to burning effigies to ward off bad spirits from the year just ended.
In the five centuries since Spanish colonizers arrived in the Western Hemisphere, the Roman Catholic Church has played a huge role in shaping Latin American cultural traditions. Its ceremonies marking the birth of Jesus Christ cram the holiday schedule—from midnight Masses to reenactments of biblical nativity stories. But even as early Spanish priests and missionaries sought to quash the spiritual practices of African and Indigenous peoples, some rituals survived, often by being absorbed into the Church’s observances.
And as many of these holiday traditions migrated from Spain to Latin America, some have also since migrated to Latinx communities in North America as well.
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For nine nights starting December 16, people dressed as Mary and Joseph (often with Mary on a donkey), lead throngs of Christians through towns and cities in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and parts of the southwestern U.S., reenacting the couple’s pilgrimage before Jesus’s birth in a manger in Bethlehem. On each night of las Posadas–meaning “inns” in English–the singing processions are turned away from homes along the way, eventually reaching one that welcomes them in for a night of song, scripture, food and fun, including star-shaped piñatas for the children. On the ninth and final night of the “pilgrimage,” festivities and fireworks abound and, in some places, lead right into the midnight Christmas Mass.
Started by missionaries in Mexico more than 400 years ago, and codified by a Papal bull, the tradition merged Roman Catholic observations around the birth of Christ with the popular Aztec winter solstice festival and celebration of the Aztec mother goddess Tonantzin. She was an Indigenous pre-Hispanic deity who became merged in the public consciousness with the iconic Virgin of Guadalupe after an Indian peasant saw an apparition of a brown-skinned Virgin Mary on the same hill where Tonantzin’s temple had been.
Horseradish Festival in Oaxaca
On the Noche de Rábanos, December 23, people wait in line for hours in the main square of Oaxaca, Mexico to see the oversized radishes intricately carved into everything from nativity scenes to images of Oaxacan folklore to the latest political caricature.
The tradition hails back to the end of the 19th century. Legend states that two friars pulled huge misshapen radishes that had been in the ground too long, and farmers shaped the vegetables into figures as curiosities in their annual Christmas market. In 1897, mayor Francisco Vasconcelos took what had become a marketing gimmick in an area long renowned for its colorful wood carvings and started a formal radish-carving competition, which now features work by carvers of all ages in different categories.
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The Novena of Aguinaldos
Families and communities in Colombia, Ecuador and parts of Venezuela gather for nine nights of prayer, feasts and religious songs called villancicos, in anticipation of Christ’s birth on December 25. Different homes may host each night. And the faithful also gather to pray at churches, some dressed as Joseph, Mary and the baby Jesus, bringing along animals seen in nativity scenes.
An 18th-century Franciscan missionary, Fernando de Jesús Larrea, drafted the particular prayers recited on each night in the Novena of Aguinaldos, or the novena to baby Jesus. Published in 1743, they were modified and updated in the 19th century by a nun named Maria Ignacia, who added verses called Los Gozos, usually sung to the tune of guitars and harps at the close of each night of the novena.
Midnight Mass – La Misa de Gallo
To celebrate the birth of Christ, millions of Catholics in Latin America and throughout much of the world pack churches for midnight Mass on December 25, or a few hours before on Nochebuena (Christmas Eve). Known in much of Latin America as the Misa de Gallo, which literally translates as “the rooster’s mass,” it serves as a collective vigil for the birth of Christ.
In the fifth century, Pope Sixtus III created the custom of celebrating the midnight Mass at the nativity scene behind the altar of Rome’s Santa Maria Maggiore basilica. Starting the vigil mass at the “crow of the rooster,” an ancient Roman expression for the start of a new day at midnight, apparently gave the special Mass its name.
In some countries, the scripture readings and joyous music of midnight Mass are broadcast on radio or TV, similar to the one offered by the Pope in the Vatican.
Parrandas are the ultimate roving party, fostering a sense of community during the holiday season. But in Cuba and Puerto Rico, the traditions are very different.
In some towns in Cuba, las parrandas are organized carnival-like festivals, filled with lights, music, floats and fireworks displays. The tradition is said to have originated in the 19th century in the town of Remedios, when a young priest tried to drum up church attendance by sending children in the streets to make raucous noise.
In Puerto Rico, by contrast, parrandas are a more grass-roots kind of revelry. Groups carrying guitars, trumpets, percussion instruments and handheld drums called panderetas or panderos go to someone’s home in the evening or wake them up at wee hours of the morning, singing and playing music at their doorstep until the host lets them in. Hosts offer traditional Puerto Rican refreshments while the revelry continues, alternating between traditional Christmas songs called aguinaldos and festive improvised verses of gossip about the year’s problems or about how they’ll cry if they don’t get a drink.
¡Feliz Año Nuevo!
People throughout Latin America ring in the new year with food, fire and fun. On New Year’s Eve, family dinners give way to fireworks in the streets or huge pyrotechnic displays in the main public squares of cities like Valparaiso, Chile, Guatemala City or Mexico City.
Revelers throughout Latin America keep alive a New Years tradition brought from Spain: eating 12 grapes, one at each chime of the countdown to midnight, to ensure good luck and prosperity. In some countries, wearing yellow underwear is believed to bring prosperity in the coming year, while red underwear will bring love.
In Ecuador, men dressed in drag—the “widows” of the past year—dance seductively in the streets, forcing drivers to pay a toll to get by.
And in numerous Latin American nations, people purge their past-year demons, real or symbolic, by making life-sized dolls or dummies—depending on the country, some might be made with masks and papier-mâché or by stuffing old clothes with paper—and burning them in effigy at the stroke of midnight.
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Three Kings Day
In much of Latin America, Three Kings Day on January 6 is the day children receive gifts, echoing the way, in biblical lore, baby Jesus received gold, frankincense and myrrh from the three visiting wise men—also called the magi.
Another import from Spain to Latin America, the holiday, also known as the Epiphany, marks the moment in the western Christian tradition when God revealed his physical manifestation in the form of his son, Jesus.
Children leave shoes by the door so the three kings know where to stop and put hay or grass under their bed for the magi’s camels. By morning, gifts appear under the bed or under the Christmas tree, which is still up until at least January 7.
Parties and family gatherings mark the day, as well as parades and festivals in major cities. In Mexico, families, friends and colleagues share the round Three Kings bread, or rosca de reyes, topped with candied fruit to represent jewels of a crown. Whoever gets the inch-long baby Jesus doll baked into it has to make tamales for the upcoming Christian holiday Candlemas on February 2.