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Christmas in Chile:
Celebrating the Season with Nativity Scenes
A Christmas tree decorated with a Chilean flag
They could be made of such simple materials as cardboard, straw and dirt. Others could be hand-carved in wood and carefully painted. The most elaborate might be grand figures made of porcelain and, as prized family heirlooms, are passed down from generation to generation.
No matter what their social class, Chileans are known for celebrating the Christmas season by creating pesebres, or Nativity scenes, in the weeks before Christmas.
Many of the nearly 14 million people in this overwhelmingly Catholic country display their pesebre in their front yards, inside their doorways, to welcome visitors, and, if they have the space, in an entire room of their home. It can take weeks for some Chileans – artists, really – to mold roads and hills that lead to the manger scene with Mary, Joseph, the three wise men and perhaps a dozing donkey.
The ubiquitous sight of pesebres is just one way that Chileans pay homage to their religion during Christmas in Chile, which falls right in the middle of the country’s summer season.
In the weeks before Christmas, people from Chile, Bolivia and Argentina travel to Andacollo, in northern Chile, to honor the Virgin of Andacollo. This is an impressive trek, but it helps to understand the geography of this southern American continent, for Chile is a long, narrow country whose greatest distance, from west to east, spans only 216 miles. The average expanse is 100 miles, with the long, 2,700-mile, north-south border aligned with Argentina and the most northern tip touching Bolivia.
Christmas in Chile: a Beautiful Artifact Found Over 300 Years Ago Starts a Tradition
Chile’s neighbors eagerly participate in a tradition that dates back to December 26, 1584, when an Indian man named Collo tripped over a heavy object. Looking down, he was astonished to find a beautiful artifact – a statue that later came to be known as the Black Virgin, or the patron saint of miners.
Today, the statue is carried through Andacollo on a platform decorated with roses and candles. The statue itself is often adorned with a jeweled crown and an elaborate robe. Dancers follow closely behind, along with drums, whistles and guitars. Villagers sell food and souvenirs to honor La Virgen de Andacollo.
Similar scenes are played out during Christmas in Chile, right up until La Noche Buena, or Christmas Eve. Many Chilean families then gather for a meal of azuela de ave -- a chicken soup filled with potatoes, onions and corn on the cob – or a roast chicken or turkey, along with mixed salads and a dessert consisting of local fruits, such as papaya and cherimoya, which Mark Twain once described as “the most delicious fruit known to man.”
Many Chileans stay up late to sing “villancicos,” or traditional carols, and to read the accounts of the birth of Jesus from the Bible. Other families attend Misa del Gallo, or rooster’s mass. After the service, many towns and cities throughout Chile set off fireworks. The commotion usually settles down in due order, however, lest it scare off Papa Noel or El Viejo Pasquero, known as the Old Christmas Man to the smallest children during Christmas in Chile. After all, fireplaces are rare, so the man in the red suit who goes by many names – including Santa – must enter homes through a door or window.
On Christmas Day, children open their presents before heading out for asados, or picnics on the beach. With portable grills or charcoal nestled into dirt or sand, families grill roasts and steak. But it takes a bigger fire for families to enjoy whole goats or lambs. A true Chilean treat, people line up at these asados with a plate and fork, carving off a piece to match their appetite. On the side, they might add a heaping pile of pebre, made from spiced tomatoes, onions and peppers, or curanto, which consists of roasted layers of eggs, vegetables, seafood and meat.
While children fly kites or cool off in the water, they work up another appetite for a dessert that is distinctive to Christmas in Chile. A staple is pan de pasqua, a rich spice cake that contains candied fruit. Chileans who plan ahead make manjar by boiling a can of sweetened condensed milk in water for several hours. This thick, rich spread is spread over bread and, for Christmas dessert, is reheated to make a treat called alfajor. Chileans pour the manjar between layers of crispy pastry dough, then douse the concoction with powdered sugar.
Adults with a sweet tooth may cap off the day with cola de mono, or monkey’s tail. This holiday drink is made with a liquor called aguardiente, as well as coffee, milk, sugar, cinnamon and egg yolks.
The day – and the season – often ends exactly as it begins: by paying homage, with prayer, to the Christ child that is central to Chileans’ way of life.
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