11 Christmas and New Year’s Traditions in Central America

Christmas in Central America is full of 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 countries between.

Read on for more, plus learn about other winter celebrations in the region.

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 happens in the streets, along with firecrackers and singing. It’s especially vibrant in the old capital of La Antigua, and in 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 up throughout churches and cathedrals: “¿Quien causa tanta alegría?” (Who causes so much joy?) to which the communal response goes, “¡La concepción de María!” (The conception of Mary!).

Many Nicaraguans take to the streets to celebrate with firecrackers and music. They visit altars and churches, and hand out food and gifts.

The day after is known as La Purísima—literally meaning “the purest one.” It commemorates the Catholic feast day of the immaculate conception.

Las Posadas

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

The name varies, but this tradition typically lasts from December 16 to 24. 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.

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.

Christmas Eve Dinner

Christmas Eve dinner is important from Guatemala to Panama. Indeed, some families place 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

“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 and made from materials like 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

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, or 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.

Mother’s Day in Panamá

Along with the winter holidays, the people of Panamá 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 hold their own horseback processions throughout the year.

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

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