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We've been writing about all things Panama for over 10 years. So search our blog to plan your vacation. From must do's, where to party or eat, to which beaches and hiking trails you shouldn't miss. You'll find great insider info about Bocas del Toro, Panama City and Boquete, as well as Panamanian culture, customs and traditions, and certainly tips and advice for learning Spanish while on vacation!


Don’t Miss These 12 Latin American Christmas and New Year’s Traditions

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Some of the most treasured childhood memories a person has come from festive holiday celebrations. In Latin American communities, Christmas and New Years are typically the biggest parties of the year. If you want to really experience a different culture, I recommend visiting during an important holiday season so that you can take part firsthand in the activities.

Plus, what's even better about Latin America during the winter holidays? The weather!

Christmas on a beach in Bocas del Toro doesn't sound too shabby.
Christmas on a beach in Bocas del Toro doesn't sound too shabby. Did we mention that Bocas del Toro is Travel + Leisure's #1 Place to Visit in 2016? Photo source: the world of cherie.

Believe it or not, Santa Claus isn't really the star of the show like he is in North America and Europe. His buddy Niño Dios or Niño Jesus (Baby God or Baby Jesus) gets way more likes. To tell you the truth, Latinos are generally more confused about the whole idea of Santa Claus. They've got all sorts of different names for him that are used commonly, like Papá Noel, San Nicolás, Colacho (Costa Rica), or Viejito Pascuero (Chile - means "little old Easter man").

Keep reading for even more interesting ways that Christmas and New Years are different in Latin America.

1. Quema del Muñeco de Año Viejo (Panama)

Perhaps the best and weirdest tradition happens in Panama. It's the best because it involves creating a life sized doll (muñeco) made with old clothes and filled with grass or cotton stuffing, sitting it up in a public space a few days before the New Year, and then ceremoniously lighting it on fire to say goodbye to the old year and welcome to the new. If you're lucky, you might even get to see one getting lit up with fireworks inside him/her.

Many times the most popular "muñecos" are actually politician look a likes. In this way people get to mock their leaders and vent some frustration if there's a particularly corrupt politician.

Now do I really have to explain why it's the weirdest tradition? But trust me, it's one you will never forget!

2. Posadas (Mexico and other countries)

A fun role-play that kids and adults look forward to every year is the Posada, or the search for an inn. Communities recreate the bible story of Mary and Joseph (who were in fact refugees) searching for an inn to pass the night when Jesus was born. A man and woman in the community are chosen to dress up as Mary and Joseph. All the community members split into two groups - one group searches with Mary and Joseph for an inn and the other group plays the roles of different innkeepers. As the Bible story goes, they are turned away multiple times until finally someone allows them to stay in a barn. Once the accepting inn is found, all community members celebrate there with a big party.

Los Tres Reyes Magos (Venezuela and other countries)

Instead of receiving presents on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, Venezuelans and some other Latin countries celebrate Three Kings' Day (Los Tres Reyes Magos) on January 6th. The tradition is for the children to leave out a pair of shoes by the front door, which "The Three Kings" will fill with three presents or candy. As the Bible story goes, the Three Wise Men followed the star to meet Jesus Christ and gave him presents of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Do the math: Three Wise Men beat Santa Claus... at least these kids think so.
Do the math: Three Wise Men beat Santa Claus... at least these kids think so. Photo source: noticias24.com

4. Novenas Navideñas (Colombia)

Christmas Caroling is a fun activity to enjoy over the holiday season. Colombians take it up a notch and really go all out with the caroling. Starting on December 16th and for the nine days until Christmas Eve, family and friends get together at different homes each night to celebrate, eat, drink and sing carols (villancicos or aguinaldos). It's a beautiful way to spend the holidays with all of your family and friends in fun, social settings.

Family and friends getting for 9 nine straight days before Christmas? Talk about sharing with who's important!
Family and friends getting for 9 nine straight days before Christmas? Talk about sharing with who's important! Photo source: Colombia Travel Blog

5. Nacimientos

Nativity scenes (nacimientos) are pretty popular all over the world, but Latinos are known for making especially elaborate creations. Whether outside with lifesize statues or inside with intricately carved figurines, they are always a sight to behold and the result of sometimes hundreds of hours of labor to produce. The scenes of course include the main characters in the Bible story of Jesus' birth, and additionally are expanded to include all sorts of animals, villagers, and homes to make up the entire "community" of Bethlehem.

Imagenes Gratis para Navidad y Año Nuevo 2013

6. La Misa de Gallo

Latinos are majority Catholic and Midnight Mass (La Misa de Gallo) is a family tradition that cannot be skipped. It happens at midnight on the night of Christmas Eve. It's a holy mass that signifies the holy day of Christmas as the birthdate of Jesus Christ. Many will also watch the mass that takes place in Rome with The Pope.

Pope Francis kissing Baby Jesus.
Pope Francis kissing Baby Jesus.

7. La Cena de Nochebuena

Christmas Day is more of a holy day to Latinos since it is Jesus' birthday, so the real fun and excitement happens the day before on Christmas Eve. Extended families all get together and have a big dinner (and sing one last villancico if they are Colombian) with a traditional meal that varies by country. After dinner everyone opens presents and continues to celebrate the end of the Christmas holiday. Many people continue celebrating all the way until La Misa de Gallo, where they all go together to the service to end the night.

In Panama for Christmas Dinner you'll usually see turkey, roast ham with pineapple, rice with guandu and tamales.
In Panama for Christmas Dinner you'll usually see turkey, roast ham with pineapple, rice with guandu and tamales.

8. Fuegos Artificiales

It ain't a party without fireworks (fuegos artificiales)! For Christmas and especially for New Years, fireworks are a big deal and are shot off in all communities, big and small.

9. Comer Doce Uvas y Lentejas

On New Year's Eve as the clock strikes midnight, everyone eats twelve grapes (comer doce uvas) as fast as they can to bring good luck in the New Year. In some countries, especially Venezuela, they make twelve wishes for each month of the year ahead. On the other hand, a traditional food in Latin America, lentils are eaten on New Year's Eve or right at midnight to guarantee economic abundance in the new year.

10. Ponte a Limpiar! (Puerto Rico)

In Puerto Rico, many people will spend New Year's Eve cleaning (limpiar) their home, yard, cars, and even the street because it's believed that however your property is found at the beginning of the year is how it will stay for the rest of the year.

11. Correr con una maleta

In order to bring many trips and fun adventures in the coming year, it's tradition to run around the block (or up the street) with an empty suitcase (correr con una maleta) right as midnight strikes on New Year's Eve. Add some coins to your luggage for extra prosperity in the new year!

12. Ropa interior de amarillo o rojo

On New Year's Eve, it's superstition in many Latin American countries to wear yellow underwear (ropa interior de amarillo) to bring prosperity and happiness in the new year. Another alternative is wearing red underwear to bring love and passion.

Yellow it is. You get the idea...
Yellow it is. You get the idea...

LEARN MORE ABOUT IMMERSING YOURSELF IN THE LATIN CULTURE AND LANGUAGE... »

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We've been writing about all things Panama for over 10 years. So search our blog to plan your vacation. From must do's, where to party or eat, to which beaches and hiking trails you shouldn't miss. You'll find great insider info about Bocas del Toro, Panama City and Boquete, as well as Panamanian culture, customs and traditions, and certainly tips and advice for learning Spanish while on vacation!


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