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Latin American Christmas And New Year’s Traditions

Here’s a look at some of the end-of-year celebrations, traditions and superstitions around Latin America.
Latin American Christmas And New Year’s Traditions

The end of the year is an arbitrary marker for the passage of time, yet it’s hard to not take the opportunity to reflect. For some people, the past year may have been difficult, while for others it was surely much better. Like Tony Camargo since 1953, this latter group might be singing, Ay, yo no olvido al año viejo porque me ha dejado cosas muy buenas. (“Oh, I do not forget the old year because it has left me very good things.”) While that song is one way the new year is brought in, there are countless other Latin American New Year’s and Christmas traditions.

Latin American Christmas Traditions

Christmas is a Christian holiday combining historical, religious and mythical events. Many Christmas traditions have been adopted in other countries, such as decorating a tree or setting up a nativity scene. Some traditions are specific to a region, however, placing high value on family and highlighting the culture of each country. Here’s a list of some of the best-known traditions: 

  • La Novena de Aguinaldos and Las Posadas. The name depends on the country, but this is a very Latin tradition lasting from December 16 to 24. There are nine nights of prayer and Christmas carols that recall the story of Jesus’ birth in a manger, always accompanied by traditional food and drinks. In most cases, it’s the perfect excuse to dance around.
  • Los aguinaldos. In its original sense, aguinaldo (“bonus”) refers to a salary bonus for workers in December. There’s another bonus, however, which comes from games played between friends and family, where the loser always gives the winner a gift called the aguinaldo. Some of the games are: el beso robado (“the stolen kiss”), el sí y el no (“yes and no”) and tres pies (“three feet”).
  • Día de los InocentesDecember 28 is very popular in most Latin American countries (from Mexico to Argentina). It’s a day where you should pay attention because people will try to trick anyone who’s gullible. It’s kind of like a Christmassy April Fools’ Day.
  • Cena de Navidad. No matter the country, one thing is a must every Christmas Eve: the family reunion with a feast of traditional dishes, sweets and desserts from each region. Whether it be steak cooked in a barbecue, stuffed turkey, tamales, hallacas (steamed meat wrapped in leaves), ajiaco santafereño (a typical soup from Bogotá), enchiladas, empanadas, picana, chicken salad, pork, rice pudding, panettone, custard, dulce de lechosa or and fritters, Christmas in Latin America will leave you with fond memories and a few extra pounds. As Rafael Pombo says in his well-known story of the strolling tadpole, habrá francachela y habrá comilona (“there will be a party and there will be a feast”).

In addition to these Latin American Christmas traditions, there’s no shortage of religious marches, demonstrations, visits to monuments, street lights, fireworks and, of course, gift-giving. 

End-Of-Year Celebrations And Superstitions

To end the previous year and start the new one on the right foot, there are many activities that usually take place on December 31. They’re part of what makes Latin America unique and are a sample of the mixture of cultures that characterizes the region. Throughout the continent, we find examples of what people believe to be good and what’s needed to be better. All of these practices add a touch of joy and superstition to this special night.

Prosperity

One of the most common desires for a new year is prosperity, particularly with money. Here are some of the ways people around Latin America try to ensure their prosperous new year.

  • Putting a small plastic sheep behind the front door is meant to attract money.
  • Wearing yellow underwear ensures prosperity for the year to come.
  • Hiding three potatoes under the bed: one peeled, another half-peeled, and another unpeeled. Someone is invited to take one without looking, and what they take determines how their financial year will be: peeled (without money), half-half, or very prosperous.
  • Throwing coins out the window. 
  • Eating a spoonful of lentils at midnight guarantees money and employment for the year to come. 
  • Taking the first step after midnight with the right foot to ensure everything will go well in the new year. 
  • Wearing underwear inside out brings prosperity.
  • Exchanging small bills and keeping them neatly folded in your wallet to ensure money all year round. 

Casting Out The Bad

A lot of bad energy can accumulate over the course of a year, and there are various ways people in Latin America try to make a fresh start.

  • Throwing pots full of water out the window purifies the space.
  • Burying the old year in the form of a pichingo, a doll made of old clothes and stuffed with gunpowder. The doll is lit on fire at midnight to burn all the bad things from the year along with it. Depending on the region, the doll can have the face of a politician or popular character of the year as a kind of catharsis for what people have experienced. 
  • Sweeping the whole house inside and out to eliminate bad energy. 

Travel, Adventure And Wishes

Why hope for money alone when you could ask for anything you want? Here are a few ways people in Latin America try to make their dreams come to fruition.

  • Running outside at midnight with a suitcase and taking a walk around the neighborhood to guarantee a year full of travel. 
  • Eating 12 grapes of luck at midnight on New Year’s Day, one with each stroke of the clock, so that wishes come true. 
  • Making 12 wishes to Yemayá (a spirit) while jumping into the sea on the waves. 

Clothing

What you wear on the first day of the year could set the tone for the next 364 days. The superstition often focuses on the color of the clothing, and you can choose which aspect of your life to focus on simply by choosing your January 1 wardrobe.

  • Wearing pink attracts love. 
  • Wearing white brings purity and health. 

On New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day, everything is a party full of music, food and drinks. Even if you pick a peeled potato or don’t have enough time to eat all 12 grapes, there’s always the possibility of a fabulous new year.

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Adriana Jiménez
Adriana is a philologist — someone who studies language in historical contexts. Since her childhood, she's been interested in learning new things daily. Her fascination with languages led her to learn German and Turkish after turning 40, and so now she considers herself an expert in the motivations and learning techniques for adults.
Adriana is a philologist — someone who studies language in historical contexts. Since her childhood, she's been interested in learning new things daily. Her fascination with languages led her to learn German and Turkish after turning 40, and so now she considers herself an expert in the motivations and learning techniques for adults.

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