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.
Table of contents
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
Rosemary is a writer, culinary explorer, and digital nomad. Together with her partner, Claire, they created Authentic Food Quest to help people find the best local food on their travels. For over 5 years they have eaten their way through South America, Southeast Asia, Europe, and North America while sharing the best local food experiences on their website. Authentic Food Quest has been featured on top publications such as Huffington Post, Business Insider, and Honest Cooking. Rosemary and Claire are also authors of Authentic Food Quest Argentina and Authentic Food Quest Peru, available on Amazon. Prior to creating Authentic Food Quest, Rosemary worked as a strategy director in advertising for over 15 years.