Christmas is probably the second biggest holiday of the year in Bolivia (after Carnaval). But, it’s completely different from Christmas in El Norte. For one, December is summertime in Bolivia. And that means fresh fruit, warm weather, barbeques, and pool time. Also, Christmas in Bolivia has nothing to do with over-the-top consumerism. It is mainly about family and religion. Here’s how we celebrate Christmas in Bolivia:
Back Off Winter!
Christmas in Bolivia is about Summer. It’s hot and humid, and it’s buggy. About the coldest thing that happens to anyone is a popsicle. Bolivia has inherited some of the international Christmas symbols – Christmas trees, holly, snowmen, even Santa Claus sweating it out in a big red suit. But somehow, those symbols seem out-of-place here, because it’s Summer. Summer changes everything.
Most people in Bolivia don’t decorate their houses. A few put up lights, and you see Christmas lights around the public plazas and parks. Many people have a small artificial tree inside their houses – there are no natural Christmas trees in Bolivia. More commonly, people might have a small religious display in their house, such as Jesus in the manger.
Everything is on a less extravagant scale. Here’s my house. It’s one of the more decorated houses in our village!
Christmas in Bolivia is about family and religion. Like most of Latin America, Bolivia is about 80% Catholic, and those that aren’t Catholic are almost entirely protestant. In other words, everyone celebrates Christmas as a religious holiday.
In our village, the festivities get started on Christmas Eve, with the procession of baby Jesus into the village. It’s a procession of suffering and sacrifice. Four strong, healthy, and rather dedicated men start walking early in the morning from a small church about 25 miles outside of our village. Together, they carry a 100 pound altar with a small statue of Jesus all the way through the sun and desert into our village. It takes them all day, and they’re pretty beat by the time they arrive.
Meanwhile, folks in the village prepare for their arrival. By the afternoon, when the men are getting close, all the kids in town are rounded up to walk out a couple of miles along the highway to meet the men, and then accompany them the last few miles into town. Here’s the group of town children walking out to meet the men with the statue:
The town’s children accompany the men during their last two miles, dancing and singing along with music. The baby Jesus statue is brought into town, paraded around each street, and finally into the church, and put in place for the evening’s mass.
The main event of the holiday is next: the Christmas mass, on the night of Christmas Eve. When all the kids in the U.S. are fast asleep, hoping Santa will come, everyone in Bolivia is attending a midnight mass at church. Mass begins promptly at midnight (technically Christmas Day), and lasts until about 1 am. And it’s not like this is just some event for only a few truly dedicated worshipers. EVERYONE goes to church. Churches across Bolivia are jammed-packed like a New York subway with standing-room only.
And if you’re not tired enough after being sardined in church until 1 in the morning, next comes the family time. Once church gets out, people go home with their families to eat a big Christmas dinner. Yes, by about 2 am, people sit down with extended family to have their Christmas “dinner”. Maybe it should be called breakfast.
In Bolivia, we have a completely different Christmas menu. There are no turkeys in Bolivia. And ham is kind of a delicacy. Stuffing, gravy, and cranberry sauce are all completely unknown.
The traditional Christmas dish that we eat at 2 in the morning is called “Picana”. It’s a hearty beef and/or chicken stew with wine sauce, potatoes, and corn-on-the-cob. Here’s a recipe. And a picture:
Christmas in Bolivia is also about fresh fruit and fresh vegetables.. especially corn. Corn is a big deal. December is the time when the first early corn can be harvested, and so we eat lots of corn – corn-on-the-cob and corn umintas (similar to tamales). These are just below Picana at the apex of the Christmas food pyramid.
By the time Bolivians finish with their Christmas dinner, it’s about 3 am, and time for bed (finally!).
As you can imagine, going to bed at 3 am on Christmas Day doesn’t give Santa Claus a whole lot of time to go down all the Bolivian chimneys and put gifts under all the trees before the sun comes up. That’s OK, because there are no chimneys in Bolivia anyway. So, whether it’s because Santa doesn’t have the time or because he has no way of getting into the houses, the end result is that there are very few Christmas gifts in Bolivia.
Gifts are not really part of the Christmas tradition in Bolivia. But, like snowmen and Santa Claus, they too are slowly being adopted as the holiday becomes more “westernized”. Still, if there are any gifts, they are small, and only for the children. It is nowhere near the scale of the mass consumerism in the U.S. When I see how Christmas is celebrated in Bolivia, it makes me realize that we’ve just taken it way too far with all the gifts in the U.S.
By the time you wake up on Christmas Day in Bolivia, it’s late. If you’re go to bed at 3 am, then you’re sure as heck not waking up at the crack of dawn to find out what Santa brought! There’s another Catholic mass on Christmas Day, usually around 10 am. So folks pull themselves out of bed, grab some coffee or tea, and a piece of fruit cake (yes, fruit cake is BIG in Bolivia), and drag their asses into church one more time.
After church on Christmas Day, large crowds mill around the public plazas and parks for a couple of hours. Usually there’s some street food for sale, such as roast suckling pig. It’s a festive atmosphere.
Throughout Bolivia, children put on a type of dance show, much like a maypole dance. The whole town gathers to watch:
By the time the dances are over, it’s close to noon on Christmas Day, and the festivities are basically done. Everyone goes home and relaxes for the rest of the day, or perhaps they go to a fiesta to celebrate with friends.
And this is how we celebrate Christmas in Bolivia. It’s completely different than in the United States – for now. But I can see Bolivia slowly starting to adopt the same traditions we have in the U.S. – Santa, the tree, huge light displays, and even Christmas gifts. And I don’t think that’s a good thing. Unique traditions are what makes the world so rich, and sometimes its better just to stick to them.
Anyway, I wish you all a Merry Christmas and Feliz Navidad, however you’re celebrating it!