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Christmas in Argentina: Traditional Celebrations & Colorful Decorations
The church near La Recoleta Cemetary in Buenos Aires decorated for the Christmas season.
Family celebrations, delicious food and religious traditions underscore Christmas in Argentina, just as in other Hispanic countries. The difference is, Argentineans celebrate by melding the Hispanic, European and American traditions that define its people. And the lights you see overhead? They could be anything from globos to fireworks.
Of the 40 million people who live in the second largest country in South America, an overwhelming majority – or about 85 percent – are of European descent. Many sought refuge in Argentina after World War II and maintained their preference for the Spanish language. Other Argentineans speak Italian or German, but the great majority still practice a faith that transcends spoken barriers: Roman Catholicism.
While the majority of these Catholics are not regular church-goers, they revere their patron saints. In fact, a patron saint “protects” most provinces and cities in Argentina and perhaps none inspires such ardent devotion as the Virgin of Lujan, the patron saint of Argentina.
Christmas in Argentina often begins when many Argentineans pay homage to the virgin by traveling on foot to Lujan, a small city west of the capital city of Buenos Aires. Legend has it that a statue of the Virgin Mary was traveling through Lujan in 1620 when the oxen pulling the wagon inexplicably stopped moving. They refused to budge until finally, the driver removed the statue. People took this as a sign to build a chapel in the virgin’s honor. Millions of Argentineans continue to pray to her at this exact location, where a larger basilica now stands.
Beautifully Decorated Homes Make Christmas in Argentina an Appealing Holiday Destination
In addition to decorating their homes with religious statues, Argentineans mark the beginning of Advent by putting up Christmas trees, which they often decorate with flowers, lace, Papa Noels and streams of cotton. Referring to pictures in books, Argentine residents artfully elongate the cotton to replicate the look of a substance that never graces their countryside: snow. As a finishing touch, a pesebre, or Nativity scene, often is placed underneath the tree.
People in Argentina are known to favor wreaths in green, gold, red and white and garlands in shades of red and white. Like their Spanish counterparts, they also continue to find great meaning in poinsettias to mark Christmas in Argentina.
These “magic” flowers are rooted in the legend of a poor Mexican boy – or a girl, depending on the version of the story – who had no gift to present to the baby Jesus at Christmas Eve services. Thinking fast, the child picked some weeds and branches from the side of the road and sculpted them into the form of a bouquet to lay at the manger. To everyone’s astonishment, the gangly pile transformed into a lovely display of red, star-shaped flowers. Certain that they had witnessed a miracle, people named these flowers flores de noche buena, or flowers of the holy night.
To this day, soft lights and scented candles illuminate many homes during Christmas in Argentina, but a particular favorite is the lighting of globos, or colorful paper lanterns that resemble kites. Assembled indoors, they are flown at night, when the lights inside the globos create a sparkling visual landscape on the Argentine sky.
On Christmas Eve, globos must compete with fireworks, which many families enjoy before attending midnight Mass and preparing for a picnic or barbecue on La Navidad, or Christmas Day.
Argentina is a country of proud beef eaters, so they understandably make it a centerpiece of their Christmas in Argentina. Often noted for its low-cholesterol quality, special cuts of Argentine beef include the tira de asado (crosscut ribs) and matambre (cuts between the ribs and haunches). Sausages made from beef are particularly popular in Argentina and include chorizos (red sausages), morcillas (black pudding) and salchica (a long sausage).
On Christmas Day, many Argentineans begin their meal with matambre, which means “hunger kills,” an appetizer of baked, marinated flank steak stuffed with spinach, hearts of palm and either ham or chopped, hard-boiled eggs. This versatile dish can be eaten hot or cold.
Afterward, it might be time for ninos envuettas, an Argentine favorite which is made by topping long strips of beef with a heavy layer of minced meat, chopped onion, sliced eggs and spices. The meat strips are rolled up and baked to a juicy perfection. This dish might be paired with another grilled meat favorite -- parrillada Argentina – puchero (a stew); locro (pork and corn stew); sweet squash in cream; or empanadas, a puff pastry stuffed with a zesty ground beef filling.
Many Argentineans wouldn’t think of enjoying a meal – let alone a meal during Christmas in Argentina—without a healthy side of chimichurri grilled on top of their favorite bread. The topping includes chopped onion, cloves, white wine vinegar, olive oil, parlsey, oregano, cayenne pepper, lemon juice and salt and is so versatile that it is also used to marinate beef.
These flavorful meat dishes often are accompanied by Argentine wine, Quilmes, the national brand of lager, or mate, Argentina’s national drink. It is passed around the table and sipped through a communal metal straw called a bombilla.
With or without the bitter brew, Christmas in Argentina often includes the country’s much-loved dulce de leche – a thick, caramel-like, milk-based sauce that is used to fill cakes and is spread over toasted bread. It also is found in alfajores, or shortbread cookies that are coated in chocolate. Many Argentineans also enjoy alfajores con dulce, a pastry with two layers of dough and a filling that is coated with powdered sugar, and panqueques, a crepe dessert.
Many Argentine families add to the festivities on La Navidad by exchanging gifts, while others continue to follow the custom of Three Kings Day, or Los Reyes Magos, on January 6. The night before, children place their clean shoes under the Christmas tree or beside their beds in anticipation of waking up to find candy, fruit and small toys from Papa Noel.
In the most traditional of Argentine households, children still leave hay and water outside for the horses of the three wise men, believing that their act of kindness will be rewarded with one of the finest Argentine gifts of all: a colorful globos that will illuminate next year’s La Navidad and Christmas in Argentina.
Argentina Religion. < http://www.argentour.com/en > In the most traditional of Argentine households, children still leave hay and water outside for the horses of the three wise men, believing that their act of kindness will be rewarded with one of the finest Argentine gifts of all: a colorful globos that will illuminate next year’s La Navidad, too.
Blashfield, Jean F. Argentina: Enchantment of the World. New York: Scholastic, Inc., 2007.
Gofen, Ethel. Cultures of the World: Argentina.Tarrytown: Marshall Cavendish Benchmark, 2002.
Lynn, Tan Mae. Argentina: A Portrait of the Country Through its Festivals and Traditions. Danbury: Grolier Educational, 2004.
Christmas in Argentina. < http://www.hispanic-culture-online.com/christmas-in-argentina.html >