For foreign visitors spending Christmas in Peru, many festive elements will be reassuringly familiar. Christmas trees stand proud in town and city squares, red-jacketed Santas ho-ho-ho from the heat of the jungle to the chilly heights of the highlands, and parents pack the streets in their quest for the perfect gift.
Many Peruvian Christmas traditions, however, will be refreshingly new. The food and drink, the decorations, even the order of events, may offer visitors a few intriguingly novel Christmas surprises.
The Peruvian Christmas Schedule
In Peru, Christmas celebrations reach their peak on December 24. Christmas Eve, known as La Noche Buena (“The Good Night”), is a far more lively and spirited day than December 25, which tends to be a sleepy affair.
Families come together during the day on December 24. Some take a stroll in the main square, where choirs sing and kids scurry about in the festive throng, or visit the homes of other family and friends. In Cusco, the main square hosts the annual Santuranticuy (literally the “selling of saints”), a traditional market in which artisans from across the country sell handcrafted images of the nativity and related religious representations.
At about 10 pm on Christmas Eve, churches throughout Peru hold a Misa de Gallo (literally a “Rooster’s Mass”), a mass attended by Peru’s more devout citizens. Outside the churches, fireworks whistle and crack in the night sky, male family members pass around bottles of beer and women put the finishing touches on the Christmas dinner.
The order of events immediately before, during and just after the stroke of midnight varies depending on regional and family preferences. Some households begin their cena de navidad (Christmas dinner) at midnight, while others first let the children open their gifts. Either way, both the meal and the opening of gifts take place around this time (with some exceptions in Andean communities, where gifts are open on January 6 during Epiphany, or the Adoración de Reyes Magos). A brindis (toast) normally takes place at midnight.
With gifts open and dinner over, the kids are sent to bed. For many adults, however, the night is just beginning. House parties continue well into the night, hence the sleep-late and lazy nature of December 25.
Peruvian Nativity Scenes and Retablos
Christmas trees have become a standard part of Peruvian Christmas decorations. You’ll see them in most main squares during December, as well as in many households.
Nativity scenes are another focal point in front rooms and living rooms during December. These scenes are often large, intricate and elaborate (sometimes taking up an entire wall), and feature statues of the Three Wise Men, Jesus in the manger and other nativity figures. You’ll sometimes see a particularly Andean twist on the typical nativity scene, with llamas and alpacas replacing the more biblical images of donkeys, oxen and camels.
Another form of decoration is a portable nativity or manger scene called a retablo. Retablos are three-dimensional scenes, normally contained within a rectangular box with two doors on the front. You’ll see them on sale in markets and souvenir shops throughout the year, especially in the Andean regions of Peru. The scenes contained within a retablo may depict historic or religious events or simple scenes of everyday life, but Christmas retablos typically depict the manger scene.
Traditional Christmas Food and Drink in Peru
The traditional Peruvian Christmas dinner often revolves around a roast turkey, but some families might sit down to lechón (roast suckling pig). Other regional variations exist, such as fish dishes on the coast, a classic Andean pachamanca in the highlands or a roasted wild chicken (gallina silvestre al horno) in the jungle. Applesauce and tamales are common additions to the Christmas table.
Another Christmas classic is panetón, a sweet bread loaf of Italian origin filled with raisins and candied fruits. Panetón has become the quintessential Peruvian Christmas “cake,” filling row upon row of store shelf-space in the run-up to Christmas.
Peruvians eat their panetón with hot chocolate, a traditional Christmas drink throughout the country, even in the sweltering heat of the jungle. Peruvian hot chocolate is flavored with cloves and cinnamon. Social events called chocolotadas, in which people gather to drink hot chocolate, take place during the Christmas period. Churches and other community organizations host chocolotadas for poor communities, giving free hot chocolate (and panetón) to families as a charitable festive treat.
Traveling in Peru at Christmas
Peruvians are on the move in the days just before and after Christmas, traveling by bus or domestic airline to or from the family home. Bus and plane tickets sell out quickly and some companies may raise their prices. If you want to travel during the Christmas period, it’s a good idea to buy your tickets at least a few days in advance.
December 25 is a national holiday in Peru. Many businesses and services shut at midday on December 24 and reopen on December 26. Some supermarkets, pharmacies and restaurants stay open for more hours than most, but you should buy all your essentials before December 24 just to be safe.
If you want to speak with family and friends back home on Christmas Day, you should be able to find an open internet cafe or call center (locutorio or centro de llamadas) somewhere in most cities. Otherwise, you’ll need to use the internet or telephone in your hotel or hostel.
If you are spending Christmas in Peru, you’ll need to know one essential phrase: “Feliz Navidad!” This is the Spanish way of saying “Happy Christmas!” -- feliz is “happy” and navidad is “Christmas.”