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10 Facts About Navidad in Latin America

Oaxaca's Night of the Radishes
Photograph by Getty Images

Oaxaca's Night of the Radishes

If you think Christmas is celebrated in relatively the same way all over the world, you'll be surprised by the variation in traditions found in Latin America alone. Here are 10 unique ways the holiday is recognized from Mexico all the way down to Paraguay, and many countries in between.

1. Night of the Radishes in Oaxaca, Mexico

La Noche de los Rábanos is celebrated in Oaxaca each year on Dec. 23. In the main plaza of town, artisans display radishes of varying sizes which have been sculpted to depict everything from detailed nativity and village scenes to pop icons and respected historical figures such as Frida Kahlo.

2. Roller-skating to Mass in Caracas, Venezuela

With the streets closed off to vehicular traffic, people in Caracas, Venezuela don a pair of rollerskates on Christmas Day to make it to early morning Mass. Along the way, rollerskaters tug on strings they see hanging from windows; these strings are tied to the big toe of sleeping children the night before so that the rollerskaters can awaken them in the morning.

3. Beating the Pooping Log in Catalonia, Spain

During the month of December many families in Catalonia, Spain have a hollowed-out log near the fireplace with a smiling face painted on one end. The log will usually have a blanket draped over it to keep it warm and children "feed" it daily to ensure it grows fat by Christmas. If that isn't strange enough, this Caga Tió, as it's called, or "Pooping Log," is beaten with a stick like a piñata on Christmas Day until it "poops out" treats for the children.

4. Sweeping in Guatemala

In many cultures it's traditional to clean the house in preparation for a holiday; in the United States we typically do this simply to prepare for guests. In Guatemala sweeping the house before Christmas is to rid the house of bad luck from the previous year. Each neighborhood will create a pile of the swept up dirt and light an effigy of the devil atop it.

5. Christmas brawling in Peru

When family gets together at Christmastime, sometimes arguments break out, but in parts of Peru such as Santo Tomas, brawling is the highlight of the Takanakuy Festival which culminates on Christmas Day. With fists wrapped in scarves and a hug to start things off, these public fist fights to relieve pent up frustrations from the past year are fought between men, women, children and the elderly.

6. Flowers for the Virgencita in Mexico City

December 12 marks Día de la Virgen de Guadalupe, who is revered by almost all Mexicans — no matter how religious (or non-religious) they may consider themselves. Millions descend upon Mexico City armed with bouquets of flowers to honor the Virgin of Guadalupe in the location where she is said to have first appeared in 1531 to an indigenous peasant named Juan Diego.

7. Coconut flowers in Paraguay

Mexico isn't the only place that includes flowers as part of a beloved tradition during the month of December. The Guaraní people of Paraguay once considered the flower of the Mbokajá, a type of coconut tree, to be sacred. Now, the fragrant flor de coco is an integral part of the Christmas season with Paraguayans using the flower to decorate nativity scenes. The long corn cob-like flower is so adored, in fact, that it inspired a song called "Navidad de Flor de Coco, Navidad del Paraguay."

8. Dancing "The Bullet" in El Salvador

Since 1970, Salvadorans have been dancing "La Bala" ("The Bullet") at parties, including during Christmas and New Year's Eve celebrations. People take to the dance floor and follow commands given in this catchy song by Los Hermanos Flores, which range from putting a hand on one's belly and making a lot of noise to getting into a line and turning out the lights.

9. Pase del Niño parade in Cuenca, Ecuador

The Passing of the Child parade combines Catholic and indigenous traditions for an event Ecuadoreans in Cuenca look forward to each Christmas Eve morning. The procession includes the expected floats, decorated cars, dancers and costumed characters, but is distinctive for its inclusion and sometimes surprising mix of traditional Christmas and holiday figures with the contemporary.

10. Parrandas in Puerto Rico

Puerto Ricans go all-out when it comes to Christmas celebrations, and this is most evident through the unique practice of parrandas. Parrandas are like going caroling, but they're not at all quiet. In fact, the louder the parranda the better. (There's a reason parrandas are also called "asaltos" or assaults!) On Christmas Eve, Puerto Ricans take to the streets with guitars, marimbas, maracas and güiros to boisterously serenade sleeping neighbors. In return, pasteles (meat pastries similar to tamales), and other edible treats are provided to the participants.

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