Christmas Traditions in Peru
This is a guide to celebrate Christmas in Peru and Machu Picchu with a focus on history, traditions, celebrations, tour ideas, activities and more.
A Brief History of Christmas in Peru
The first Christmas in the Americas was memorable but for the wrong reason. On December 25, 1492, Christopher Columbus ran his ship, the Santa Maria, aground while exploring the coast of Hispaniola (modern day Haiti). He had to abandon the ship on Christmas Day and left behind 39 men who built the settlement of La Navidad (Christmas). All in all, not a festive way to spend Christmas.
When exactly the first Christmas was celebrated in Peru is open to debate but Francisco Pizarro arrived in Peru in the 1530s and defeated and captured the Inca Atahualpa on November 16, 1532.
It is safe to assume that he and his small band of conquistadors probably celebrated — or at least observed — Christmas the following month.
In the centuries that followed, Christmas remained one of the principal Christian festivals in colonial Peru and then independent Peru. Until relatively recently, Christmas in Peru was a highly religious affair, with religious festivals taking place throughout December and ending on the first week of January (beginning with Inmaculada Concepción on December 8 and running through until Epiphany on January 6). Santa Claus first arrived in Lima at the end of the 19th century.
Modern day Christmas in Peru
Christmas in modern day Peru is similar to most other countries, in that it is a very special time for families to get together and celebrate but it is December 24 which is most commonly celebrated as the main festive day in Peru, whilst December 25th is an opportunity to visit family, eat leaftovers from the day before, open presents or just enjoy a family day out.
One of the more common traditions on December 24th is the revelation of Christ. For this event, a small baby statue of Jesus is covered with a blanket and then taken out at midnight, symbolising the birth of Jesus Christ. Another focal point of Christmas decorations in Peruvian homes is the Nativity manger. Also known as a pesebre, the Nativity scenes are usually intricately carved out of pottery, wood, or huamanga stone. Family gifts are spread around the manger instead of a Christmas tree, and on La Noche Buena one lucky family member is chosen to put a figurine of Christ into the manger. Afterwards the special Christmas dinner is feasted upon.
This is often turkey, pig, chicken, guinea pig or fish, depending on the region (Andes, Coast, Amazon). After the special dinner, families will go to Midnight mass (Misas de Gallo or Rooster Mass).
Then later at night, as tradition stands, Santa Claus delivers the presents but it is not until the very next day, early in the morning do families open-up their presents and enjoy a traditional hot chocolate with paneton (originally from an Italian recipe). This Italian sweet bread with festively coloured green and red dried fruits inside is sold in droves and have been hugely popular in Peru after they were introduced about a century ago. Some however still prefer to eat alfajor, 2 soft biscuits sandwiching a layer of dulce de leche (a creamy, milky thick caramel).
January 6 is the Bajada de Reyes, which ties in with Epiphany. Traditionally on this day the decorations are taken down and the nativity scene is put away until next Christmas. In Lima, three mounted police, dressed as the Three Wise Men, ride through the city carrying gifts, which they take to the Municipality of Lima on the Plaza Mayor.
Tour ideas and more
Prepare yourself for a warm Peruvian Christmas this year, with temperatures rising above 30° C on the Coast and 22°C in the Andes. This is the perfect opportunity to visit Machu Picchu, Lake Titicaca, the Colca Canyon, the Amazon Jungle or the Peruvian Beaches whilst celebrating Christmas. If you require more information about our Christmas tour packages just visit: http://www.amazingperu.com/peru/christmastours.asp
Here you will also find luxury Christmas tours, family Christmas tours and Christmas throughut other Latin American countries.
If visiting Cusco during this period, you will notice the life and joy at Christmas time, with a combination of Andean and Christian traditions that makes Cusco a unique place to spend the festive season. Every year in Cusco there is a Christmas Market on the 24th and 25th of December called “Santuranticuy” a Quechua name that means sale of the saints. People from the communities around Cusco meet in the main square, the Plaza de Armas to sell their goods, crafts, food, religious artefacts. If you are visiting Cusco during this time of the year visit the Christmas Market and see all the products on display to support the local artisans.
One of the more unusual sites in Cuzco are the Peru Christmas Fights (Takanakuy).
Every year on December 25 in the Chumbivilcas Province near Cusco, local residents fight each other to settle old scores (or just to prove who’s the toughest). Copious amounts of alcohol and plenty of dancing ensure that the combatants stay on reasonably good terms after the fist fight.
You can also overnight at Machu Picchu during this period by opting for a group tour or tailor-made private tour. Either enjoy a Christmas trek on the Inca trail to Machu Picchu or spend the night at the Machu Picchu archaeological site or Machu Picchu town (Aguas Calientes), the entrance town Machu Picchu. Aguas Calientes is a charming town with their own local artisans.
Alternatively, you can spend Christmas in Lima and enjoy the modern city adorned with Christmas decorations in Miraflores for example or better still why not embark on a more traditional location such as Lake Titicaca, Arequipa or the Colca Canyon. Amazon Christmas Cruises are also available but do bear in mind that at this time of year Peruvians also travel so flights, trains and hotels do get booked up in advance recommending early planning.
Christmas on the Coast with its typical folk dances are another unique way of enjoying the festivities.
In southern Peru in the province of Canete they have dances to welcome baby Jesus, with the smallest children dancing “zapateo” and adults playing the musical instruments such as quijada de burro and the cajon, showcasing a large criolla-afroperuana festivity unique to the area.
Christmas gifts to take home with you from Peru
Of course, if you’re visiting Peru over the holidays you’ll have to take home some suitable Christmas souvenirs for friends and family. From the famous Alpaca textiles, perfect for keeping warm during winter, to handmade Christmas tree decorations and other trinkets. Also, tasty treats to give your loved ones a taste of Peru, there’s a huge amount of choice.
How to Say Merry Christmas in Peru
Simple: “¡Feliz Navidad!” which means “Happy Christmas!” Throw in a kiss on the cheek and a warm hug and you’ll be all set for the festivities.
Christmas in Peru: Traditional Food
For most families, Christmas dinner in Peru is usually a large roast turkey similar to traditions in North America and Europe, or perhaps a lechon (roast suckling pig).
However, like every other holiday in Peru, there are many regional variations in typical food between the cities, coast, highlands and jungle, and Christmas is no exception.
Smaller coastal communities may swap fish for the turkey. In the Andean highlands, a classic pachamanca (meat, beans and potatoes wrapped in banana leaves and cooked underground) is more common. In the jungle, families often roast a wild chicken.
There are a few traditional foods you’ll find all around the country though. Apple sauce and homemade tamales are on the sides of most plates.
Lastly, keep in mind that December 25th is a national holiday in Peru, so many businesses and services will close around midday on the 24th and will not reopen until December 26th.
Have a great trip from Amazing Peru!