Although Peru has a strong indigenous population, the majority of Peruvians are Roman Catholics and it should therefore come as no surprise that Christmas celebrations in Peru are a big deal.
With the first recorded Christmas celebrations taking place in Peru back in 1535, the country has a long and illustrious history of celebrating Christmas.
While some Christmas traditions in Peru are similar to those practiced in the United States and Europe, there are some more unique traditions that reflect Peru’s history and make it a truly special place to spend the Holiday Season.
♦ An overview of Peruvian Christmas traditions
One of the main differences between Christmas in South America and the typical celebrations found in Europe and the United States begins with the day it is celebrated on. The largest Christmas celebrations in Peru do not take place on Christmas Day but in fact on Christmas Eve, on a night known as ‘Noche Buena’ (Good Night).
During Noche Buena, religion plays a central role with the ‘misa de gallo’ (Rooster’s Mass) beginning at 10PM in Peru which is also slightly earlier than some of the other South American countries.
Following the mass at around midnight, families return to their homes to begin with the more traditional Christmas celebrations of having a large roast turkey dinner before exchanging gifts. While the adults toast with champagne and the children with their hot chocolate, fireworks can often be seen lighting up the night sky of the main towns and cities of Peru.
♦ Llamas in nativity scenes & more Peruvian Christmas decorations
Today it is now becoming more and more common to see Christmas trees in the center of Peru’s larger city squares however; many Peruvian households opt for a more traditional ‘retablo’ (nativity scene) instead of a Christmas tree. Particularly in Peru’s Andean region, gifts are not changed until the Day of the Three Kings or Epiphany on January 6th. The more popular retablos are the centerpiece to most households and Christmas celebrations in Peru and are extremely impressive and ornate.
Retablos are today, a form of folk art with paintings and wood carvings depicting religious events which are particularly relevant in Peru’s history as priests used these to initially try to convert the indigenous population to Catholicism.
Nowadays, they simply depict the nativity scene and used to celebrate Christmas with their own Peruvian touches. At first glance these wood, pottery or stone nativity scene may seem completely normal with nothing out of the ordinary. However, if you take a closer look, you’ll notice that many of the animals used in Peruvian nativity scenes are llamas and alpacas instead of sheep and goats and also feature an Andean Mary and Joseph.
♦ Christmas in Peru is a foodie’s dream
Peru is the gastronomic center of Latin America and Peruvian food is considered as one of the top cuisines in the world. With food playing such an important role in Christmas celebrations around the world, Peruvian Christmas food is a foodie’s idea of heaven.
As well as having the more traditional roast turkey, salads and sides of apple sauce the Peruvian gastronomic flare can also be found in the form of more local corn dough tamales and homemade aji hot sauce.
As the adults clink their champagne glasses, children drink hot chocolate made from scratch using rich dark chocolate, cinnamon and cloves to give it that all important Peruvian twist. While you may prefer trying the more traditional Christmas dinner in Peru, you may be tempted to try the mouth-watering flavors of ceviche and fish food to add a twist to your Christmas, especially in Lima.
♦ Have a beautiful & special Christmas in Cusco
If you’re traveling to Peru during the Holiday Season, Christmas is an especially beautiful time to be in the former Capital of the Inca Empire, Cusco. Located at over 11,000ft. above sea level, Cusco will surely be one of the highest cities you would have celebrated Christmas in. The festive spirit begins in Cusco around the December, 10 when nativity animals made from lights begin to take shape in the city’s main square, the Plaza de Armas. The week preceding Christmas is when you can give back a little to the local community as organizations and churches organize ‘chocolatadas’.
Wealthier members of the community make a Christmas gesture by offering poorer children hot chocolate, toys and with the lines for chocolatadas a distinct feature of Christmas in Cusco it is something to look out for and even offer to give a helping hand.
For an insight into how the locals get ready for Christmas, on December, 24 the fascinating, annual Santurantikuy market which when translated from the local Quechua language means, ‘the buying of saints’ takes place. Dating back to the 16th century, local families from Cusco and the Sacred Valley descend on Cusco’s central square to buy the final few pieces for their nativity scenes as well as enjoy some local cuisine and a warm alcoholic drink known as, ‘ponche’ which is made using pisco, hot milk, egg, sugar and a dash of cinnamon.