10:52am December 23, 2012

¡Feliz Navidad! Hispanic Christmas Traditions


While most Americans will come together on Christmas Day to open presents and enjoy a turkey feast, Hispanic households will start rejoicing a day early with tamales or lechón.

Latinos celebrate on Christmas Eve or Nochebuena. Traditions vary by country and region but three things are always present during the holiday, regardless of where you’re from: mouth-watering food, festive music, and good times with family and friends.

Here’s a few highlights of what you’d see when celebrating the holidays with a Hispanic family:

Before Navidad, many Catholics celebrate the nine days leading up to Christmas with posadas, which means “inns”. Posadas are meant to simulate Mary and Joseph’s pilgrimage looking for shelter. People will go from house to house singing carols and inviting those inside to join the procession. The night ends at a host’s home where everyone enjoys a warm drink, food and games.

Food is essential during posadas but the real button-popping buffet comes on Nochebuena.

If you’re Mexican, a food staple that is sure to be on your dinner table during the is tamales. If you’re unfamiliar with the tasty, masa meal I suggest you befriend a Chicano ASAP! Mexican tamales are seasoned meat, wrapped in cornmeal dough and steamed in corn husks. There’s also sweet variations, made with nuts and raisins.

Tamales are also enjoyed in other regions of Latin America. In the Caribbean and Central America, they’re wrapped in plantain leaves instead of cornhusks and are known by other names such as hallacas, bollos or pastel en hoja.

In countries like Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, you’re sure to find a barbecued pig known as lechón asado at the centre of your holiday buffet.  A good portion of moro (rice and black beans), along with niño envuelto (stuffed cabbage) are classic side dishes.

When you dine with families from South America, you might encounter an asado — a variety of meats cooked on the grill. If you’re visiting Colombians, a traditional chicken soup served with heavy cream and capers — called ajiaco — might fill your belly.

As for dessert, a variety of sweet breads are consumed by all Latinos.

Buñuelos are a common treat consisting of fried dough often flavored with anise and finished off with a sugar topping or honey. In Nicaragua, Cuba and the Dominican Republic, buñuelos are made with a dough containing cassava. In Mexico, the dessert is usually made with flour tortillas and a syrup made of piloncillo, an unrefined whole cane sugar.

Another delectable dish is Panettone, a rich, Italian bread with fruit. Although the cake is originally from Milan, Italian immigrants brought it over to the Americas and it has become a holiday staple in South America and the Caribbean.

Wash this all of it down with a steaming mug of champurrado — a chocolate-based atole. Atole is a thick drink made with hominy flour or masa, cinnamon and piloncillo and is popular throughout Mexico and Central America.

If you want some booze to warm your belly, sip on coquito. This Puerto Rican drink is similar to eggnog but made with coconut milk and spiked with rum. Similar egg-based drinks are common throughout Latin America, like Venezuela’s poncho crema, rompope — enjoyed throughout Mexico, Costa Rica and El Salvador — and Chile’s cola de mono. 

Once you feel like you’ve gained 10 pounds at the dinner table, that’s your cue to go outside and have some fun. You’ll see kids playing with chispitas or sparklers, smoke bombs and firecrackers, while the adults take care of the bigger firework displays. In Mexico, star-shaped piñatas made out of clay pots are filled with peanuts, candies and fruit for kids (and young-at-heart adults) to enjoy.

Not forgetting the religious aspect of the holiday, many Hispanic households attend a midnight mass known as misa de gallo, or rooster’s mass.

Hispanic  holiday celebrations continue on to the new year with Día de Reyes on January 6th, or Three Kings Day. The Western idea of Santa Claus has gained popularity among Latin America, but traditionally gifts are exchanged on Díade Reyes, not Christmas. The tradition is based on the biblical story of the Magi visiting Jesus after his birth and bearing gifts. Instead of leaving milk and cookies for old Saint Nick, kids will leave hay or dry grass for the Wise Men’s camels to eat.

Like all festivities in Latin America, Día de Reyes has its culinary traditions. Rosca de reyes, is a round pastry decorated with candied fruit, figs and cherries. In Mexico, family and friends gather to eat the rosca, which is baked with a plastic, baby figurine inside. The tradition is whoever finds the figurine in their slice of pasty has to make tamales and host a get together.

Latino families hold an array of traditions and customs for the holiday season, but now you’ve had a sneak peak into what many will be doing this upcoming Monday night.

Whatever you celebrate, whoever you’re with, Politic365 wishes you a happy holiday filled with laughter and joy!

About the Author

Iris Estrada
Iris Estrada
American by birth, Mexican by blood, and curious by nature. Iris is a bilingual freelance writer who grew up on the Arizona-Mexico border then spent her teen years in the Dominican Republic. She moved to Canada to pursue her university degree in journalism and international development studies and is currently residing in Florida. As a proud Latina, Iris is passionate about covering stories that applaud diversity and center on issues affecting visible minorities. She's an advocate for immigration rights, a food-truck lover, and a self-proclaimed professional people-watcher.



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