While you may not think of Colombia as synonymous with Christmas, the country has some of the world’s longest and most unique holiday celebrations. Christmas traditions in Colombia last well over a month and involve family, food, prayer and lights. Often Christmas decorations go up in October!
Of course, as in any country, Christmas traditions will vary by family and by region, but here are some general Christmas celebrations in Colombia.
November – January: Colombian Christmas Lights
Christmas light displays in Colombia are intense! Above-freezing temperatures mean that it’s easy for families to walk around and enjoy light displays outside. Bogotá has a big display at the botanical gardens, Cartagena’s includes a giant Christmas tree in the Centro Histórico, and Medellín lights up both sides of their river. All three cities have multiple places to see the magical Christmas lights, and doing so is a favorite family event.
November-December: Charitable Acts
During the Christmas season, many Colombians help others by donating toys or food. In grocery stores, you can buy pre-packaged boxes of food to donate and schools may sponsor families to donate to.
December 1: La Alborada
In the city of Medellin, inhabitants welcome December and the start of the Christmas season with fireworks. The night of November 30 many people set off fireworks, despite the fact that it is illegal and they can face large fines.
December 7: El día y La noche de las velitas
The night of December 7th and often continued through the night of December 8, Colombians light candles and lanterns. December 8th is the Catholic holiday of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary. In Colombia this day is a public holiday. Many light a candle and say a prayer or make a wish. Some families light candles at home or make a bonfire, while others light candles around their homes or in public squares or at churches. Plain wax candles are used, as are paper bag linternas to line driveways and sometimes lanterns are even hung in trees. It is a beautiful site to see candles light up the area!
December 16-24: La Novena de Aguinaldos
A novena is a Christian prayer practice that is repeated for nine days or weeks. Colombia has a unique Christmas novena called La Novena de Aguinaldos. Starting December 16 and continuing through December 24, families say a different prayer each night. They also sing Christmas carols (villancicos), often with musical instruments like Christmas maracas. In some places, Colombians gather at churches and see a live nativity scene of Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus.
December 24-25: La Noche Buena y Navidad
On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day families go to church to celebrate the birth of Jesus. They exchange gifts with family members, often having very large gatherings with extended families.
While Santa Claus exists commercially, he does not bring gifts (it would be hard with few chimneys and no snow!). Gifts are brought by el niño Jesús, or baby Jesus.
January 6: El Día de los Reyes
The Three Kings Day celebrates the arrival of the Three Wisemen to see the baby Jesus. It’s a public holiday in Colombia (Colombia has LOTS of public holidays!) and the end of the Christmas season. Some families attend mass or exchange gifts.
Christmas Food in Colombia
The most traditional foods for Christmas are buñuelos and natilla. Buñuelos are small round doughnuts that are deep fried to a dark brown color. Natilla is a light-colored pudding or flan that can have multiple flavors, but one of the most popular is coconut.
Other popular Christmas foods include small Christmas cookies (usually store-bought, not homemade), chocolates, tamales, and breads and cakes. These make for fun souvenirs to bring home!
If you are lucky enough to be in Colombia for Christmas, you are sure to enjoy seeing these Colombian Christmas traditions!