Very few places in the world celebrate Christmas the way Central Americans do. No matter what country you’re in here, chances are you will experience the most festive environment you’ve ever been a part of for a holiday (perhaps only the Philippines can compete for the honor of most extravagant Christmas celebrations).
The celebration here begins a full nine days before Christmas, with Las Posadas celebrating the symbolism of Mary’s pregnancy, the journey of Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem, and the search for lodging on the night Jesus was born. Religious processions are often seen marching through the streets—particularly in Guatemala—with figures of Mary and Joseph carried to the houses of friends and loved ones.
This nine-day celebration culminates in Nochebuena, or Christmas Eve, when just about everyone in Central America begins to gather with friends and family for huge feasts— featuring tamales (similar to empanadas), lechon (roast pig), gallina rellena (stuffed chicken) and hot chocolate—and dance celebrations that include lots of Christmas carols. Many of them attend the Misa del Gallo (“Rooster Mass”), which begins at midnight. Those who don’t attend the midnight mass typically gather around their home Nativity scenes to pray, sing and often exchange gifts. Many also use this opportunity to complete their Nativity display with the baby Jesus figure—conspicuously absent from the display for the weeks leading up to Nochebuena. In El Salvador and Nicaragua, it is common for people to shoot fireworks and estrellitas (little stars) to illuminate their lands and beaches and celebrate the significance of the day.
It must be experienced to be appreciated, so if you want to be amongst Central American people in their most festive state, plan a Christmas season here sometime. Many of these same traditions are prevalent in other Latin American countries outside of Central America, but nowhere quite to the extent of here.