An analysis of a Chilean Christmas

SANTIAGO – As Chile is a predominantly a Catholic country, Christmas is a very important holiday that is widely celebrated. Just as in many other places around the world, Christmas is a merry time of year to be spent with family over a festive dinner. Nonetheless, Chile, as per usual, has a unique take on the holiday. Chile has its own vocabulary, dishes and traditions for this very special day which are reflective of the history that shaped this country.

Anyone even slightly familiar with the Spanish language may have heard the expression ¡Feliz Navidad!, meaning Merry Christmas, an expression widely used by most Spanish speaking countries. And yet in Chile, it is much more common to hear ¡Feliz Pascua!

Now you may be thinking to yourself that Pascua is Easter, not Christmas, and that just maybe the sizzling heat of Chilean summer has gone to your head causing some confusion. Fear not, the confusion is quite justified as Pascua, commonly meaning Easter in Spanish derives from the Greek Pascha, which stems from the Aramaic Paskha or Hebrew Pesach meaning Passover, the celebration of the Israelites’ Exodus out of Egypt.

The term predates Christianity and thus can have a vague meaning in its new religious appropriation. In some countries it has been narrowed down to mean Easter, while in others it has kept a more broad definition that encompasses several Christian festivals from Christmas, Epiphany, Pentecost to Easter.

In Chile, the term can mean both Christmas and Easter. Santa Claus is also referred to as Viejo Pascuero, or literally Old Easter Man. Despite the difference in name he has a distinctively Americanized, Coca-Cola crafted image, of a jolly fat man in a red suit. As chimneys are not common in Chile he is known to enter family homes through the window. The Christmas tree is, in line with the terminology, called El Arbol de Pascua and is decorated with garlands, religious icons and other traditional decorations.

Preparation and decorations

Christmas decorations are very common in Chile and are put up as early as November. These include decorated Christmas trees in main public areas, streets lined with illuminated trees, garlands and so forth. As pine trees do not grow in Chile all Christmas trees sold and used are of the fake variety. Almost all public and private spaces will also feature a nativity scene in which baby Jesus is notably absent until the night of December 24th, when he is ‘born’ and thus placed in his crib.  

The feast

In Chile, Christmas is celebrated in a family setting with a gathering for dinner, drinks and a gift exchange. Traditionally families come together for a late dinner on Christmas Eve, Dec 24th, or La Noche Buena. The typical holiday dishes aren’t set in stone and can include barbeque or other types of prepared meats or poultry.

There is, nevertheless, a traditional dessert called Pan de Pascua, or Easter Bread, which is sweet cake (not actually bread) made from batter in a manner similar to sponge caked, flavored with ginger and honey and decorated with dried fruits or nuts. The Pan de Pascua originated with German immigrants that settled in Chile.

Chile also has a traditional festive cocktail which is called cola de mono, or monkey’s tail. This drink is similar to a White Russian cocktail, but made with aguardiente (a clear spirit), coffee, milk, sugar, and cloves.

A night to remember

After having dinner some families choose to attend evening mass at a local church, known as Misa del Gallo, or the Rooster’s Mass, while others relax and celebrate with friends and family at home. Instead of waiting for Christmas morning, Chilean children traditionally open their presents at midnight and even begin playing with them then and there.

On Christmas Day, families continue to relax, spend time together, go to church, enjoy the summer sun outside or have a big lunch to use up the delicious left-overs from the night before. Parks, beaches and pools fill up in the late afternoon as everyone wakes up from their holiday slumber, or party hang-over, and heads out for some well-deserved rest and relaxation for the rest of the day.

¡Feliz Pascua and Happy Holidays!


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