An Andean Christmas in Cusco, Peru

We arrived in Cusco (sometimes spelled Cuzco, Qosqo or Qusqu) Peru on December 23rd from San Pedro de Atacama, Chile looking forward to our first Peruvian Christmas.  We were curious to discover the local traditions and to experience the Peruvian Christmas food.

What we didn’t know when we arrived is that we were just in time for one of the most important Christmas festivals in Cusco. Our host, Doris through Airbnb told us about the festival and we made it a point to check it out the next day, December 24th.

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The Santurantikuy Festival

This festival is called Santurantikuy  which translates to “selling of the saints” in Quechua the original language of the Peruvians. The fair takes place on the Plaza de Armas (Main Square) and it is an exhibition of the Catholic Religion in the Peruvian Andes. This fair has been a Cusco Christmas Eve tradition for over 500 years. In 2009, the National Culture Institute of Peru declared it a National Heritage.

Andean Christmas Santurantikuy
Andean Christmas Plaza de ArmasPlaza de Armas
Andean Christmas SanturantikuySanturantikuy on Plaza de Armas
Andean Christmas SanturantikuySanturantikuy festival

This Peruvian Christmas market was unlike any Christmas market either one of us had ever seen before in the U.S. or Europe. The market was filled with Campesinos (people from the farm) dressed in traditional clothing, selling their wares. The people from the farm sell moss and bits of plants found far in the mountains. These plants are for Christmas Nativity scenes which are proudly displayed in Cusco homes. The country people also sell Nativity handicrafts with a definite Andean feel.

Andean Christmas traditionalTraditional Peruvian selling crafts
Andean Christmas plantsTraditional Peruvian selling plants
Andean Christmas waresTraditional Peruvian selling wares
Nativity scene

The star of the Peruvian Christmas festival is the Niño Manuelito, the Andean version of the newborn Jesus. Walking around, you see the varying appearances. Some are made with rosy red cheeks, other have a more Andean look to them with dark skin and traditional Andean attire. However, most of them all share one thing in common – arms open wide to signify peace and love.

Andean Christmas JesusAndean Jesus
Andean Christmas JesusAndean Jesus
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Peruvian Christmas Traditions

In keeping with the Peruvian tradition, our host family invited us to partake in their traditional Christmas rituals. This meant going to with them to their Catholic Church in the neighborhood. The Christmas Eve mass was at 8pm. This is then followed by a traditional Peruvian Christmas dinner at 10pm, with the goal of staying up together to midnight (Christmas) for gift exchange.
Fascinated and excited about our first Peruvian Christmas, we offered to contribute by bringing the wine and dessert. However, before we get to the food let’s talk about the Christmas mass experience.

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Cusco’s Niño Manuelito

We walked over together to the Church with our host and her daughters. The mass was already in session when we got there and we were both struck by how packed the Church was. Even though we were not that late, there was absolutely no available space inside the Church. It was standing room only…outside! We listened to the service from the outside as more and more people joined us. One surprise was the use of the Quechua language. At one point during mass, children started singing Christmas songs in Quechua. It was unexpected though beautiful to hear familiar Christmas hymns in the traditional language.

The one thing that really shocked me was seeing children and adults alike carrying beautifully adorned baby Jesus (Niño Manuelito) in baskets or trays, preciously holding onto them throughout the mass. I whispered  to our host and asked about this and she told me that the baby Jesus were brought in to be blessed by the priest at the end of service. True to her word, at the end of the mass, the priest accompanied by one of the alter boys carried around a branch of leaves which he dipped into holy water and sprayed it to the many raised Niño Manuelito. A truly fascinating experience to observe.

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Traditional Peruvian Christmas Dinner

After getting back late from Church, and rather than cook, our host had wisely ordered our Christmas dinner to be delivered to the house.  We enjoyed a scrumptious dinner that included traditional stuffed turkey, rice, mashed potatoes and a variety of traditional salads. The stuffed turkey was delicious and similar to the kind of turkey on would find at Thanksgiving in the U.S.

The rice was a special Peruvian Christmas rice which was mixed with thin noodles (fideos) and black olive paste. The olive paste gave it a really unique and delicious taste. The Peruvian salads were unexpected and included greens with sliced apples and peaches. An absolute treat.

Andean Christmas TurkeyDoris, our host, cutting the turkey
Andean Christmas dinnerPeruvian Christmas dinner
Andean ChristmasChristmas dinner with host family

The main meal was followed by a traditional Peruvian Christmas dessert.  It is similar to an Italian Panettone (sweet loaf) filled with raisins and candied fruits. This was good, but not great. The sweet loaf was good, but the candied fruits had an artificial taste.

Andean Christmas Panettone or Paneton Peruvian Dessert by Authentic Food QuestPeruvian Panettone dessert

Midnight was marked by the sounds of fireworks exploding simultaneously. We all went outside and watched the bright colors and cacophony of explosions. It was truly remarkable to see adults and kids alike lighting all sorts of different fireworks. What is typically not permitted in the U.S. was “free for all” in Cusco. The night ended with hugs, laughter and gift exchanges.

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In Summary

It was an honor and a privilege to have had the opportunity to have spent an Peruvian Christmas in Cusco with Doris and her family. While the traditions are different from what we are typically accustomed to in the Western world, there were many similarities – attending church on Christmas Eve, eating together as a family and the gift exchange.

While there are some nuances and differences, the joy of Christmas remains the same. If you find yourself in Cusco, Peru or somewhere new during the holiday season, take part in the festivities. Celebrate the local customs and attend a local church service.  When you go beyond the difference you will find the shared spirit of Christmas and values of family and love.

Have you ever spent Christmas away from home and in a foreign place? How did you celebrate Christmas? What surprised you the most? Please share your comments with us below.

Savor The Adventure!

18 thoughts on “An Andean Christmas in Cusco, Peru”

  1. I’ve never spent a Christmas outside of the states, but I’ve always wanted to. I love learning about holiday traditions in other places. Happy New Year.

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    • Thanks so much and Happy New Year to you as well. Glad you enjoyed the post. Spending Christmas away from home can be sometimes difficult, but it’s also a great time to learn new holiday traditions. Best wishes for 2016.

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  2. Your post took me back! My husband and I spent Christmas in Cuzco a few years ago.. I loved the markets, and have a picture in front of that Nativity 🙂 I remember being the most surprised by all of the fireworks on Christmas Eve! Glad that you enjoyed spending the holidays there too!

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    • Hi Andrea. Glad the post reminded you of the time you spent in Cusco. The fireworks were surprising and non-stop. Children and adults alike lighting them and having a great time…the joy of the holidays!! Thanks for your comments on the pics and wishing you a wonderful 2016. Best.

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  3. What a great opportunity spending the holidays abroad. Looks very fun and interesting. I live part time in Panama and they are as obsessed with nativities as Peru appears to be, though the ones you have pictured are really special and unique. The market looks fun and it is nice everyone is sharing in the same traditions. Happy holidays and keep on exploring. 😉

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  4. So cool you’ve spend X-mas abroad and had the chance to enjoy a traditional dinner. When we’re abroad we also start looking for traditional and local stuff to eat and do. Hanging around in places where the locals go makes everything around your trip much more authentic. Great to hear that you’ve enjoyed every piece of it! Cheers & my best wishes for 2016, Jempi.

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  5. It’s such a humbling experience to be able to witness a different culture other than ours in the most authentic way. Sounds like you had a lovely one. The food looks amazing!

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  6. It’s always a pleasure to learn about the best stuff going on through the locals! Looks like you were in the right place at the right time! I would love to try some of that special Christmas rice too. I spent Christmas in Bangladesh this year >< Who knows where the next one will be! Happy New Year and all the best for 2016.

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    • Thanks Alice and a happy New Year to you as well. It worked out beautifully that our hosts invited us “into their home” for the holidays. The Christmas rice was delicious as was everything else. What was the local speciality for the holiday’s in Bangladesh? Any unique rituals or customs? Completely agreed, who knows where the next Christmas will be….Best wishes for 2016!!

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  7. What an amazing exprience made all the better by your gracious hosts. How did you arrange this before you visited? The weather didn’t look that great but shopping in the markets must have been really interesting seeing all the local crafts.

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    • Thanks Sue! Actually, our host was a recommendation from folks we met on our travels. We learned about the Christmas festival once we arrived. What a nice surprise! The markets have been really interesting in Cusco. We’ll be talking more about this on a future blog:) Cheers!

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  8. How lovely that you got to celebrate Christmas in another country-while eating a traditional meal! We are heading to South America in a few weeks and we can’t wait!

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    • Hi Anna. Thanks for your comments and Happy 2016! Wishing you the very best and loads of fun in South America! It was truly a special moment to spend our first Andean Christmas in Cusco. Where are you planning on visiting in South America? Don’t forget to hit the farmers markets for all the local specialities and of course some of our favorite places on our blog!!! Cheers

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  9. Great post! I find it interesting also because the city where I come from, Lecce (South Italy) has is very fond with nativities! We have a very characteristic local fair once a year calle ‘fiera dei pupi’; the statues are made by locals in papier maché (like you can see here https://bit.ly/1TwbvJx). Amazing pictures also! The open air markets are so colorful!

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    • Thanks Sabrina. That’s interesting that in Italy there is a similar nativity festival. It’s nice to see the differences from the overly commercialized Christmas events in the U.S. or Europe. Do you or does your family participate in the “fiera dei pupi”? Thanks for your note about the pics. The markets are fun and a great place to observe the local customs and traditions…not to mention the food!! Wishing you a wonderful 2016!

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