A traditional Christmas in Bolivia has some similarities and some differences from a traditional Peruvian Navidad celebration. A country whose population subscribes to a mixture of Catholic and indigenous beliefs, Bolivia shows elements of this integration of both religions in its holiday festivities. Since it is also the time of the Summer Solstice, when crops are being taken from the fields, indigenous Bolivians consider this a time to celebrate the harvest. During the Summer Solstice celebration, Bolivians thank the Pachamama, or Mother Earth, for her abundance and ask for a prosperous year to come.
Christmas Celebration in Bolivia
Like Peru, the most important celebration takes place on Christmas Eve. Many families attend the midnight mass, or Misa de Gallo, on December 24th. Gallo means rooster: the mass is so-named because folks return home around the time the roosters start crowing to greet a new day. It’s a Bolivian tradition to bring two small presents to the midnight mass, a figurine of the Niño Manuelito or Baby Jesus, and another representing their trade or profession. So, a baker might bring a loaf of bread, and a cobbler might bring a new pair of shoes, along with a Jesus figurine, both in offering and as an appeal for abundance in the New Year.
After mass, it is a Bolivian custom is to enjoy a hearty Christmas picana, a special soup made with several kinds of meat, such as lamb, beef, and chicken, and vegetables like squash and corn. This hearty and nourishing meal may be accompanied by a refresco, or cold fruit drink, roast pork or beef, a variety of fruits, and a salad. Prepare your own picana using the following recipe.
On the morning of December 25th people enjoy hot chocolate and buñuelos, deep-fried balls of dough flavored with cinnamon and sugar. The sound of firecrackers can be heard in the background as families celebrate throughout the night.
In Bolivia, most of the gift-giving occurs on January 6th, during the feast known as the Epiphany. A Bolivian custom, somewhat akin to the hanging of Christmas stockings by the chimney, or children leaving shoes out for Saint Nicholas, is the leaving out of shoes on the doorstep. To the delight of children, the shoes are magically filled with presents when they open the door in the morning.
As is common in many Catholic countries in South America, the main Christmas decoration in Bolivia is the pesebre, or nativity scene. These scenes, intended to reproduce the city of Bethlehem, can be highly elaborate, with figurines and props of all kinds to represent houses, baby Jesus, Mary and Joseph, angels, the Wisemen, the barnyard animals, etc. A few Bolivian homes, especially in metropolitan areas, are incorporating Christmas trees and lights in imitation of Western traditions, but the nativity remains the most popular and the most artfully embellished decoration for most Bolivians.
If your trip to Bolivia falls over this special time of year, ask your guide where to find the best picana, and keep your eyes out for elaborate nativity scenes during your December holiday in Bolivia.