If you are spending Christmas in Bolivia, you'll notice that the South American country's traditions associated with this holiday are different than in many parts of the world. With its high population of Christians (the majority are Roman Catholic, and the rest are Protestant), Christmas is one of Bolivia's most important holidays. The country's indigenous heritage also remains influential on its Christmas rituals, many of which are unique in South America.
Christmas Celebrations in Bolivia
In Bolivia, Christmas Eve is the most important time during the season. Families attend a midnight mass affectionately called Misa del Gallo, or "Mass of the Rooster"—because locals return home early in the morning, simultaneous with the rooster's awakening.
One of the unique Christmas traditions in Bolivia is to bring two offerings to mass: a small baby Jesus figurine, and something reflecting one's profession. For example, a cobbler may bring small shoes, or a baker may bring a little loaf of bread.
The holiday continues through to the Epiphany on January 6 when children receive gifts. The night before Epiphany, kids place their shoes outside their door, and the Three Kings leave presents in their shoes during the night.
Christmas is also harvest time in Bolivia. With a substantial indigenous population, Bolivians celebrate Mother Earth's bounty and thank her for the generosity of the past and hope for the future.
Christmas celebrations begin when families return home from midnight mass and enjoy a traditional Bolivian dinner and festivities. Unlike in the U.S., Christmas in Bolivia occurs in the summertime when it is warm, so it is common for families to toast with cold drinks. Dinner consists of picana, a soup made with meat, potatoes, corn, and other vegetables. It is accompanied by salad, fruit, and roast beef or pork. The next morning, people usually drink hot chocolate and eat fried buñuelos (sweetbread).
Although Western Christmas traditions are being incorporated into Bolivian homes, it is not usually common to decorate the outside of houses or to have a Christmas tree. Instead, the most important decoration in a Bolivian home is the pesebre (also called a nacimiento), a nativity scene that is the centerpiece in the home and also prominent in the church.
Visitors will frequently see gourds carved and decorated to create small nativity scenes. European- or U.S.-style decorations have begun to accompany the traditional items, and Christmas trees have gotten more popular, mainly in the cities and bigger towns.
Although families are slowly adapting outside Christmas traditions of turkey dinners, decorated trees, and gift exchanges, there are many interesting rituals which only take place in Bolivia. People do not exchange presents on Christmas. However, the Epiphany custom continues: Children leave out their shoes in anticipation of gifts.
Another tradition that remains strong is the giving of a canasta—a basket of goods given by an employer to their staff members. Each employee's family receives a gift basket with staple foods, along with Christmas items such as cookies and candies.
As in many South American countries, Bolivia at Christmas is filled with the sound of firecrackers. The noise of the celebrations can last all night as families enjoy firework displays that often rival those of the Fourth of July in the United States.