19 Christmas and New Year’s Traditions in Central America

Last updated on March 4th, 2024 at 01:46 am

Christmas and New Year's Traditions in Central America

Christmas in Central America is a time for family, feasting, religious observance, and colorful celebrations. Many of our Central American customers at Remitly have moved away to find better opportunities, which can be tough during the holidays. This list of Central American Christmas traditions will bring back good memories for folks from Guatemala, Panama, and the surrounding countries.

Read on to explore how people celebrate Christmas in Central America and discover other winter holidays observed in the region.

Día de las Velitas in Colombia

For many Colombians, Día de las Velitas marks the official start of the Christmas season. Also known as Little Candle Day and Immaculate Conception Eve, this day looks forward to December 8th, when Catholics celebrate the appearance of the angel who told the Virgin Mary she would give birth to Baby Jesus.

To herald the arrival of the angel, Colombians decorate sidewalks, public spaces, balconies, porches, and other outdoor areas with candles and paper lanterns. Because businesses are closed the following day, people stay up late and walk through towns and cities to admire the glowing decorations.

La quema del diablo in Guatemala

This festival in Guatemala takes place on December 7. During this Christmas celebration, people burn effigies of the devil. The burning serves as a cleansing process: out with the old and in with the new.

Revelers often make devil figurines out of trash and old items that people wish to get rid of.

Much of the celebration takes place in the streets, along with firecrackers and singing. It’s especially vibrant in the old capital of La Antigua and mountain villages.

This purification clears the way for the Catholic celebration of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary on the following day, December 8.

La Gritería & La Purísima in Nicaragua

In Nicaragua, on December 7, people prepare for the feast of the Immaculate Conception with a completely different celebration. La Gritería—“the shouting”—is a tradition dating back to 1857.

A common cry goes out throughout churches and cathedrals: “¿Quien causa tanta alegría?” (“Who causes so much joy?”) to which the communal response is, “¡La concepción de María!” (“The conception of Mary!”).

Many Nicaraguans take to the streets to party with fireworks and music. They visit altars and churches and hand out food and gifts.

The day after is known as La Purísima, meaning “the purest one.” It commemorates the Catholic feast day of the Immaculate Conception.

Las Posadas

During Las Posadas, people across Central America commemorate Mary and Joseph’s search for shelter in the biblical Christmas story.

The name varies, but this tradition typically lasts during the days leading up to Christmas, starting on the 16th and continuing until Christmas Eve. Communities set aside nine nights for prayer and songs followed by traditional food and drink.

Children to adults, often dressed as Mary and Joseph, form candlelight processions through the streets of towns and cities. They hold candles, sing traditional verses, and knock on the doors of the posadas (“inns”) of participating neighbors.

There are also Las Posadas celebrations in many larger cities around the United States, with some of the biggest events in Los Angeles and San Diego.

Christmas Brams in Belize

During December, many citizens throw parties called Brams. These mobile gatherings go from house to house, with people eating, drinking, and dancing.

The tradition dates back to the late 18th and early 19th centuries when many Indigenous worked as enslaved people in Belize’s mahogany forests and mines. When the rainy season arrived, they would return home to their villages for a well-deserved rest and throw Brams in celebration.

Today, the Bram has become one of Belize’s Christmas traditions but still includes elements of the original parties. People play Brudong, the traditional folk music of the Kriol ethnic group, and perform traditional dances. There is also plenty to eat with favorites, including a black cake made with rum-soaked raisins and cherries and Rum Popop, a beverage similar to eggnog.

Charamicos in the Dominican Republic

Charamicos are Dominican Christmas decorations not found in other Central American countries. The decorations are substitutes for evergreen Christmas trees made of straw, branches, and bent wood. Artisans craft them in many shapes, including trees, stars, angels, animals, and balls.

As you walk up and down the streets of Dominican towns and villages, you’ll see charamicos everywhere, and some people also place them inside their homes.

Midnight Mass

La Misa del Gallo, or ‘Mass of the Rooster,’ is one nickname for midnight Mass on Christmas Eve.

Throughout Central America, Catholic families attend Mass on Noche Buena. Some countries follow the solemn service with raucous celebrations in the streets to kick off Christmas Day.

Nativity scenes

Nativity scenes or nacimientos are part of the Christmas traditions in many Spanish-speaking countries. Many families look forward to setting up theirs each year.

In Mexico, they’re called nacimientos and are often large and elaborate. Traditionally, people add figurines to their nativity scenes throughout the holiday season. For example, they put Jesus in the manger on Christmas Day and add the three kings on Three Kings Day.

Nativity scenes are also an important part of the holiday traditions in Guatemala. Many churches place large nativities outside and hold ceremonies when they add the baby Jesus just before the start of midnight mass.

Nativity scene

Christmas Eve dinner

Christmas Eve dinner is important from Guatemala to Panama, with many families placing more importance on Christmas Eve dinner than meals eaten on Christmas Day. Traditional foods for the Christmas season in the region include:

tamale eaten in guatemala on christmas

Junkanoo parades in Jamaica

Like Brams, Junkanoo or Jonkanoo dates back to the days of slavery but has become incorporated into the Christmas traditions of Jamaica. Cities and towns throw this festival sometime between December 26 and New Year’s Day, and many people turn out to be a part of the fun.

People dress in elaborate costumes during the festivities and participate in a parade. Then, bands perform and attendees dance. At some celebrations, there are games for children that award winners with small gifts.

Día de los Santos Inocentes in Mexico

December 28 is Día de los Santos Inocente or the Day of the Innocents in Mexico. On this day, people remember when King Herod ordered that all boys in Bethlehem under the age of 2 be killed because he feared Jesus. According to the story, Joseph and Mary managed to escape to Egypt unscathed.

In remembrance of the event, Mexicans spend the day playing practical jokes on one another, making the holiday similar to April Fool’s Day in America. Some people also visit cemeteries to honor their loved ones.

“Old Year Dolls” in Panama

Known as “old year dolls” or “Judas dolls,” giant stuffed dummies are burned on December 31st in Panama to burn the past—symbolically.

These dolls are often fashioned to resemble politicians, celebrities, and community leaders. They’re dressed in old clothes made from straw, cardboard, and banana leaves.

It’s particularly popular along the Pacific Coast Highway in that country.

Grapes for Good Luck

On New Year’s, many Central Americans follow the Spanish tradition of eating twelve grapes for good luck. The grapes are meant to be consumed one at a time, for each stroke of the clock on New Year’s Eve.

twelve grapes are eaten on new year in central america and other spanish speaking countries

Maniquí in Honduras

In Honduras, making Maniquí is a traditional part of New Year’s celebrations. People spend hours making these life-sized mannequins and filling them with fireworks.

At midnight on New Year’s Eve, families take their Maniquí outside and light them on fire to symbolize wiping away all the bad things that may have occurred during the previous year. Then, Hondurans ring in the New Year with their neighbors.

Es hora de los abrazos in El Salvador

Salvadorans gather with family and friends on New Year’s Eve to eat delicious food and socialize.

A minute before midnight, everyone cracks an egg into a glass of water. Then, they examine the shape of the yolk, using their imaginations to determine what they look like. It’s said that whatever a person sees in their glass is what the new year will bring.

After completing the tradition, the glasses are set aside, and es hora de los abrazos commences. The phrase translates to “the hour for hugs,” when everyone hugs, kisses, and wishes each other good fortune for the year ahead.

Día de los Reyes

Santa Claus has become increasingly popular throughout Latin America during the Christmas season. Still, many families in Central American countries have stayed true to the Catholic tradition of receiving gifts from the three kings.

This happens on the twelfth day of Christmas, which is January 6th. It’s also known as the Epiphany, and it caps off the Christmas season.

Three Kings’ Day commemorates the three wise men. Children prepare for the Kings’ visit the night before, sometimes leaving out water and straw for their camels. They expect gifts under their beds the next morning.

More Central American Winter Holidays

Christmas and New Year’s aren’t the only festive events at this time of year in the region. The following are other holidays that take place in Central America during the winter season.

Día de la Virgen de Guadalupe in Mexico

Día de la Virgen de Guadalupe, or the Day of the Virgin of Guadalupe, is celebrated on December 12th each year in Mexico. The day remembers when the Virgin Mary appeared to a young Indigenous boy named Juan Diego and spoke to him in his native language, Nahuatl, asking him to build a church on Tepeyac Hill in Mexico City.

To honor the day, there is a large festival in Mexico City, and smaller celebrations take place throughout Mexico. Many Mexicans also make pilgrimages to the Basilica of Guadalupe, the church built to honor the Virgin of Guadalupe.

Mother’s Day in Panama

Along with the winter holidays, the people of Panama celebrate Mother’s Day on December 8.

This day coincides with the Roman Catholic feast day of the Immaculate Conception.

El Tope Nacional in Costa Rica

Topes, or mounted processions on horseback, are a celebrated part of Costa Rican culture. Since the 1940s, many towns throughout the country have held their own horseback processions throughout the years.

The most important is the Gran Tope Nacional, which occurs in San Jose on December 26th. Thousands of jockeys, horses, and spectators attend the activities.