As a predominantly Catholic country, it’s no surprise Christmas (Navidad in Spanish) is widely celebrated in Bolivia. Traditions are similar to those in the west, although there are some key differences.
In the month leading up to Christmas the decorations start to go up, including huge trees and colorful lights in the main plazas and public spaces. Most families get into the spirit by decorating their apartments inside and out with an abundance of flashing lights which are particularly spectacular when viewed at night from the Teleferico (cable car system). Thousands of multicolored blinking lights can be seen across the entire valley, from one end of the city to another.
Father Christmas is known as Papa Noel over here. He’s pretty much the same guy – a fat, jolly old man in a red suit who gives presents to children. Much like in the West, taking photos with him under a Christmas tree in a shopping mall or town plaza is a popular attraction for families.
Smaller towns celebrate in much the same way although with less extravagance due to harsher economic conditions. A small number of indigenous Bolivians reject Christianity altogether and prefer to focus on their own beliefs and traditions instead.
The 24th of December is the important day in Bolivia, as it is in most of Europe. Bolivian families get together and share a traditional dinner called Picana which is a hearty soup consisting of beef, chicken, lamb, pork, potatoes, corn with various other vegetables and spices. It tastes surprisingly good (despite it’s appearance), but it doesn’t compare to the turkey-with-all-the-trimmings feasts that are common in the West.
Most families have a serious religious session after dinner, appropriate seeing as it is Jesus’ birthday after all. This typically consists of singing, praying or reading the bible.
As midnight approaches, people start to shake hands and wish each other a Merry Christmas. Some families even do a count down, similar to what westerners do for New Years Eve, before getting out the fireworks. From the rooftop of our hosts house in Santa Cruz, we could see the whole city letting off their fireworks at once, which was mayhem for about 10 minutes before it died down.
After the fireworks display the adults enjoy a well deserved drink or five, while the kids frantically open their presents. Many families stay up well into the night drinking and chatting.
The 25th is basically just a rest day to kick back and relax, rather similar to Boxing Day in the Australia.