Christmas in Peru (South America)
Updated: Dec 21, 2020
A Brief History
It is widely taught in the field of ancient history that Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, and India, gave rise to the first civilizations of mankind. However, few are aware that at the same time, and in some cases before some of these societies emerged, another great civilization had sprouted - the Norte Chico civilization of Supe, Peru – the first known civilization of the Americas.*
The first known city in the Americas was Caral, located in the Supe Valley 200 km north of Lima. It was built in approximately 2500 BC. Peruvian territory was home to the Norte Chico civilization, one of the six oldest in the world, and to the Inca Empire, the largest state in Pre-Columbian America.
The Inca first appeared in the Andes region during the 12th century A.D. and gradually built a massive kingdom through military campaigns. At its peak, the Incan empire, known as Tawantinsuyu, reached from northern Ecuador to central Chile and consisted of 12 million people from more than 100 different ethnic groups. Well planned agricultural and roadway systems, along with a centralized religion and language, helped maintain a strong and powerful empire. Despite their power, the Inca were quickly overwhelmed by the diseases and superior weaponry of Spanish invaders. They were finally overtaken in 1572.
Attracted by stories of a country of great riches, Francisco Pizarro arrived on the Peruvian coast in 1524, having left Panama where he resided. After several weeks of exploration, Pizarro's men began to despair, then finally discovered an abandoned village with gold and food. As they explored further, they encountered strong hostility from the Indians and decided to return to Panama.
After several more failed attempts at claiming the country for the Spanish Crown, Pizarro took advantage of a civil war between the two Inca brothers Atahualpa from Quito, and Huascar from Cuzco. Pizarro ultimately ended up tricking and kidnapping Atahualpa and then killed him—even after he agreed to and had accepted a ransom for Atahualpa’s life.
Ultimately, the story of Peru’s conquest is similar to the Conquest of Mexico. In this case, even fewer Spaniards (200) were able to defeat a great empire. And, like the Conquest of Mexico, it was because of an accumulation of circumstances—a perfect storm that destroyed the Incan empire. First, the Spaniards had superior weapons: firearms. Second, they benefited from the civil war between the two brothers, which considerably weakened the empire. Third, they resorted to trickery to capture Atahualpa. Finally, they benefited from the complicity of certain populations subjected to the Inca empire that supported them to destroy the Incas. And, just like the indigenous enemies of the Aztecs, the native allies were quite unaware that the Spaniards would be more tyrannical than their predecessors.
Christmas traditions in Peru date back to 1535, as the majority of the population practices Catholicism. December 24th is La Noche Buena, or “Good Night,” and the main day for Christmas celebrations. In the evening, after mass, families go home to eat a Peruvian feast and open gifts. At midnight, adults will toast with champagne, while children toast with hot chocolate. Going out to watch fireworks is a long standing tradition. Yet, in recent years there have been calls to abandon it due to the overwhelming noise.
The Peruvian Christmas meal will turkey, tamales, salads, applesauce, and a sweet bread called panetón. The most traditional part of the meal is panetón with hot chocolate made from chocolate bars and milk. Panetón is similiar to the Italian panettone. Gifts are exchanged either before or after the meal and family members usually hug, kiss, and thank the gift-giver before opening their present.
The main focal point of Christmas decorations in Peruvian homes is the Nativity manger. Also known as a pesebre, the Nativity scenes are usually intricately carved out of pottery, wood, or huamanga stone. Gifts are spread around the manger instead of a Christmas tree, and on La Noche Buena one lucky family member is chosen to put the baby Jesus figurine into the manger.
Cusco has a busy Christmas market called Santuranticuy that is centered on the tradition of building a pesebre and embellishing it as many ways as possible. Beautiful Peruvian retablos can be found here as well. They are intricately designed tableaus of various nativity scenes (although retablos can depict any scene chosen by the artist). Santuranticuy has been held in the Plaza de Armas for centuries and is a fun holiday event where visitors sip on hot rum punch, dance, and enjoy La Noche Buena fireworks.
Peru is the world’s second largest producer of cocaine. War and poverty have multiplied the number of street children, who are often abused and exploited for labor. The trafficking of young girls, high rates of teen pregnancies and subsequent abortions, contribute to the suffering of girls trapped by a hopeless situation.
Peru still needs a stable government with just policies to rescue its people from poverty and from the exploitation of land and workers for cocaine and oil in the Amazon basin. Pray for a return to peace and stability after decades of corruption, dictatorships, and terror.
Pray against poverty, homelessness and oppression. Pray against human trafficking. Pray for humble pastors trained in biblical theology who reflect Jesus to a watching culture. Pray for Christians to boldly oppose sin and injustice while also ministering to the poor and oppressed.