Christmas is a special time in South America and Peruvians love the holiday. While there is a strong indigenous population, most Peruvians are Roman Catholics and it is understandable that Christmas is a very big holiday in the country.
While some celebrations are similar to those in Europe and North America, there are some unique traditions that reflect the nation's history and make Peru a special place to be during the holidays and one that makes for a great holiday destination.
Christmas Traditions in Peru
Although North Americans typically celebrate Christmas on June 25th, as with many South American countries like Venezuela and Bolivia, the biggest Christmas celebrations are not on Christmas Day but the night before on Christmas Eve, in Peru it is known as Noche Buena or Good Night.
On Christmas Eve religion plays a central role with the misa de gallo or Rooster Mass beginning at 10pm, which is a bit earlier than some other South American countries. Families return at midnight to toast the birth of Baby Jesus with champagne and begin to celebrate Christmas with a large roast turkey dinner and to exchange presents.
Christmas Decorations in Peru
With a greater outside influence from North America and Europe Christmas trees are slowly starting to appear. While Christmas trees are becoming more popular, traditionally the gifts are brought by Santa Claus, or Nino Jesus and placed near the retablo (manger scene) and most homes still do not have a tree. In some cases, particularly in the Andean region, gifts are not changed until the Epiphany on January 6th and brought by the Three Wise Men.
In Peru the nativity scene is very popular and can be found in every home. Known as retablos they are a form of folk art with paintings and carvings from wood of religious events. These are particularly relevant in Peru as it is what priests initially used to try to convert the indigenous population to Catholicism. Today these mini altars depict the manger scene and are used to celebrate Christmas.
Today the mangers may be constructed from wood, pottery or stone and appear to be a typical nativity scene but if you look carefully you will see that the animals are actually llamas and alpacas.
Christmas Food in Peru
As around the world, food plays an important role in Christmas celebrations. After mass it is common for families to sit down to a traditional roast turkey dinner with a variety of salads and side dishes such as apple sauce.
Like the corn dough based tamales on the table, most of the food has the Peruvian gastronomy flare and is a bit spicier with aji hot sauce is also available on the side. While adults toast the event with champagne, children drink hot chocolate that has a delicious twist with the addition of cinnamon and cloves. For dessert it is common to eat paneton, a Peruvian fruit cake.
After dinner many take to the streets to greet friends and neighbors to continue the celebrations. While it is technically illegal, fireworks are abundant and can be seen throughout the night. After the children finish opening their presents and view the initial light show it is time for them to head to bed. This is when the real celebrations begin for adults as they push away house furniture and put their dancing shoes to salsa the night away. These parties can last quite late and into early morning, for that reason December 25th can be quite uneventful.
It is very uncommon for stores to be open on Christmas Day and it's important to plan ahead and get any necessities in advance.