12 Unique Latin American Holiday Traditions

Latin America holidays: people in colorful outfits dancing in the street

Each Latin American country adds a unique flavor to major holidays like Christmas, New Year’s, and Mother’s Day. The nations of Central and South America also have many regional or country-specific holidays to commemorate. Whether you’re an immigrant who misses home, an expat, or a visitor, these Latin American holiday traditions are worth celebrating.

Latin American holidays and how they’re celebrated

Latin American holidays are just as varied as the countries that celebrate them. Some of them are specific to individual countries, while others have a common origin but have evolved in different ways.

With over 30 countries in the region, there are plenty of ways to celebrate throughout the year.

Let’s start with Christmas traditions in Latin America, which vary from Mexico in the north to Argentina in the south.

Latin American winter holiday traditions

Christmas, or Navidad, is one of the most recognizable holidays around the world. In Latin America, the Christmas season extends from Las Posadas on December 16th all the way to Dia de los Reyes Magos (Epiphany, or the Three Kings Day) on January 6th.

Region-wide: Nativity scenes

During this time, you’ll see elaborate nativity scenes called nacimientos or pesebres in most Spanish-speaking countries in Central and South America, and presepio in Brazil. These are often hand-crafted to reflect the local or regional style.

Most nativity scenes depict Joseph, Mary, and baby Jesus in a Bethlehem manger. Jesus usually isn’t added until midnight on Christmas Eve, known as Noche Buena.

Region-wide: Christmas Eve celebrations

Many churchgoers in Latin America attend a late supper and Mass on Christmas Eve. In some ways, Noche Buena is an even bigger celebration than Christmas Day itself.

In countries like Guatemala and the Dominican Republic, “bombas” or firecrackers are set off at midnight to kick off the Christmas Day fiesta.

Argentina: Hanukkah in Buenos Aires and beyond

Argentina is home to a Jewish community of about 250,000, making it the largest in Latin America and sixth-largest in the world.

The eight days of Hanukkah are an important time to celebrate the re-dedication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem during the second century B.C. Jewish synagogues and communities celebrate this sacred occasion with many festivities.

These include:

  • Lighting one candle each day on the menorah
  • Reading special sections of the Torah
  • Eating special dishes, such as fried foods that recognize the importance of oil in the Jewish tradition
  • Giving money to children as a way to encourage good behavior and works of charity

Colombia: La Alborada & Día de las Velitas

La Alborada is a relatively new festival in Medellín, Colombia, that started in 2003. It takes place on the night of November 30th, welcoming in the month of December with fireworks all over the city.

Medellín also puts on an internationally recognized display of Christmas lights throughout the entire month of December.

Before La Alborada became popular, Día de las Velitas—which means Night of the Little Candles—was the official start to the Christmas season in Colombia. It is still a special occasion for many people throughout the country.

Día de las Velitas celebrates the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary, on the night of December 7th and into the morning of December 8th. Families place candles outside their homes and along streets to light the path that the Virgin Mary will travel.

Chile: A Christmas feast for warm weather

Latin America holidays: paper bag with the flag of Chile printed on it

In Chile, people often refer to the Christmas season as Pascua, although this typically means “Easter” in other Spanish-speaking countries.

However, Pascua can also mean any solemn and holy day on the Christian calendar.

A typical Christmas feast in Chile occurs late in the day on Christmas Eve—around 9 p.m. or later—and includes such dishes as roasted turkey with chestnuts, potato salad, cola de mono punch, and pan de Pascua for dessert.

Perú: Santuranticuy Christmas market in Cusco

Every Christmas Eve, the Plaza de Armas in Cusco, Perú, makes room for the largest Christmas artisan market in the country.

The folk art tradition of Santuranticuy began in the era of Spanish colonization and spread of the Catholic religion in Perú. Its name comes from the Quechua words Santu (“saints”) and ticuy (“to sell”).

In Cusco, Andean crafts made from wood, ceramic, and silver dominate this annual market. You can also find ponche and other refreshments for sale in the evening.

South America: Panettone as a favorite treat

If you travel throughout South American countries during the Advent, Christmas, and New Year seasons, you’re likely to come across a delicacy: panetón (or panettone in Italian), which locals enjoy during many of the winter feast days.

Originally from Italy, this pastry typically filled with dried fruits is also a massive favorite in South America. Perú is the world’s number-two consumer of the pastry after Italy!

More Latin American holiday traditions

Latin American countries in Central and South America celebrate independence days, feast days, and offer regional twists on global holidays.

Region-wide: Mother’s Day and Father’s Day

Both Mother’s Day and Father’s Day have taken on greater significance in Latin America recently, and are widely celebrated from Argentina to Costa Rica, Guatemala to Uruguay.

In much of Latin America, Día Del Padre takes place on the same day as most other countries (the third Sunday of June). In Brazil, however, Dia do Pais falls on the second Sunday of August.

In the Dominican Republic, Día de la Madre takes place on the last Sunday in May. In Mexico, the date stays the same from year to year—May 10th.

Central America: Independence Day on September 15th

Central American countries all celebrate Independence Day on September 15th.

This date honors the Act of Independence for Central America, which was signed by the leaders of Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and El Salvador.

And it’s not just the date that ties this Latin American holiday together. All five countries participate in a torch relay over several days leading up to September 15th. Along the way, you’ll encounter food, music, and parades.

Mexico also celebrates its independence from Spain around this time. It falls a day later, on September 16th, and is not to be confused with Cinco de Mayo.

Brazil: Dia dos Namorados

Many countries in Central and South America celebrate St. Valentine’s Day, but Brazil’s Dia dos Namorados stands out for a few reasons. Instead of falling on February 14th, it takes place on June 12th, St. Anthony’s Day Eve.

This holiday is closely linked to St. Anthony. Single women in particular celebrate with customary activities known as simpatias. These traditions may include things like putting a love letter in a pot of basil or putting a rose in a glass of water.

Will it bring love? Who knows, but it may be worth a try!

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Further reading