Christmas and Epiphany in Peru

Christopher Dunn, OFM Friar News

The last newsletter issue featured Christmas in Japan. Here, a friar who has ministered in South America for more than 25 years, describes the holiday season in Peru.

LIMA, Peru — The Christmas season in Peru is full of alms-giving as well as festive parties that include hot chocolate, gifts and Italian fruitcake.

The main family celebration takes place on Christmas Eve after midnight Mass, which begins at 10 p.m. At midnight, families set the sky ablaze with colorful fireworks. Then families settle down to a big meal, usually turkey or roast piglet, which can last until 4 or 5 a.m.

More affluent families celebrate the Christmas season at their beach houses south of Lima, as December marks the beginning of spring and warmer weather.

While the Christmas tree has gained popularity over the last years, the nativity scene is the main decoration. Many families put up large, elaborate nativity scenes that fill up an entire living room. Some families exchange gifts on Dec. 25, while others keep the tradition of opening presents on the feast of the Epiphany. Santa Claus is known here as Papa Noel.

For Advent, the Santa Ana Parish celebrated the psadas, or the re-enacting of Joseph’s and Mary’s search for an inn. In Nuestra Señora de Lourdes Parish during Advent, there were penitential services and blessings for pregnant women. This year, we used “Mary the New Eve,” a prayer written by Russell Becker, OFM.

St. Francis Adorns the Nativity Set
We also placed an image of Our Lady of Advent, a pregnant Mary, in the middle of the Advent wreath. Around the second Sunday of Advent, the nativity scene is put up in the church. It is a handmade artisan set in the Ayacucho style. Knowing St Francis’ devotion to the Incarnation, the artisan included St. Francis in the set, pointing to baby Jesus.

During the 12 days of Christmas, all parish groups participated in house-to-house visits and caroling. Many of the groups had chocolatadas — an event where hot chocolate, bread, and sometimes toys are provided for the less fortunate — for their own group, or sponsored gift giving in poorer neighborhoods. There was one main public chocolatada with a live Christmas play sponsored by the Secular Franciscans and the Franciscan Youth (JUFRA).

Out With the Old for New Year
For New Year’s, each family created a scarecrow resembling an old man to represent the old year, stuffing old clothes with paper. At midnight, the scarecrow was set on fire and fireworks were set off.

Epiphany marked the arrival of the three kings bearing gifts and the end of the Christmas season. Some families keep the older tradition of exchanging gifts on this day, which is also when people take down the nativity scene. The locals in the mountain areas celebrated the packing up of the nativity set with elaborate folk dances, parties and food.

The Lourdes parish celebrated the day with a Christmas play put on by the adults and children. The play incorporated elements of the story of salvation in the Old Testament up to Jesus’ birth. At the end, the three kings distributed gifts to the children. Many kids prefer this to Papa Noel because they can write three letters to each of the three kings requesting presents.

As you can see, the Christmas season is a time of celebration and joy in Peru.

— Fr. Chris is pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Peru.