Daily Archives: December 19, 2011

Old Bolivian Christmas traditions

Pagina Siete (12/18/11) had the excellent idea to publish Alejandra Pau’s article that captures how Christmas was celebrated some years back in Bolivia. The photograph to the right, is from a Christmas carol (villancico) group, around the 1930s in La Paz:
“Here goes Jesuschrist’s  its crystal Ray, illuminating the world over as the Heavenly Kingdom”, says the lyrics of one of the Carols of yesteryear who used to sing the worshipers of the infant Jesus; groups went from House to House to sing and danced in front of the manger.
This and other Christmas traditions, common in Bolivian households until the 1960s and 1970s were disappearing or changing by others such as trees and Santa Claus, along with trade and globalization.
Writer Antonio Paredes Candia describes in his book Bolivian Popular Parties (Fiestas populares de Bolivia that in La Paz the Manger and its decorations were the focal point of the celebration, and were in the more hospitable place of the household.

Worshipers arrived and paid respect and danced to Christ the child or child Manuelito, as many called little Jesus. It was him who gave gifts and not Santa Claus.

The Manger was prepared with branches of fruit trees, the image of the Redeemer laid on a green lawn or a small well padded bed. Families that had more resources renewed his dress every year.

The curator of the National Museum of Ethnography and Folklore, Varinia Oros, said that tradition in his native Potosí was and still is more rooted than in other places of the country.

“Months before Christmas, the children started a campaign to grow in ‘little cans’ the pasture that was then placed by the manger, where the little baby Jesus from Cuzco (cusqueños) were almost always present”, recalls.

The baby cusqueños’ characteristic were their eyes of glass and its curled hair; they were made of wax, plaster and other materials. They were very traditional among families of yesteryear and were inherited by generations. “in Potosí they had sandals and other ornaments made with silver”, said Oros.

Weeks before Christmas, children wrote letters which asked for a gift from the child Jesus. The director of the National Museum of Art, Edgar Arandia, recalls that he received one single gift, not several.

“We asked trucks, toy guns…” On one occasion in the 1960s, my uncle Juan, a military who was also a wood sculptor, was imprisoned for being contrary to the Government of the MNR, but he managed to make the most beautiful gifts I remember. Oh yes, when the gifts were clothing it was a tremendous disappointment”, says smiling.


It was very common to put candles of colors around the nativity scene, sometimes causing some disasters. If the child was made of wax, he would melt. Arandia and Oros agree that if an event of this type occurred, or similar, it was attributed to the infant Jesus of mischievous nature.

In other households they made clay figures on December 24, especially in the first part of the 20th century. The forms had close relationship with the wishes of the person. If a house, a wife, or money, was the figure and was placed near the baby Jesus so that he does the miracle and the dream becomes a reality.

Worshipers and carols

The night of December 24 was a very familiar moment in which some took the opportunity to invite to dinner to homeless people. The joy of the night always put the worshipers group in motion, arriving at the homes to dance and sing to baby Jesus or Manuelito.

According to historian Fernando Cajias, it was impossible to consider the holding of December 24th without the presence of at least two groups of worshipers at his home. “Before, they (worshipers) filled the streets, ranging from a House to the other”, he says.

Arandia adds: “came with panpipes, chullu chullus and sparrows to dance chuntunquis and said ‘knock on Earth’ while singing”.

Chullu chullus – made less and less overtime – rattles made of bottle metal caps, the sparrows are a kind of whistles that have form of a coffee pot, which when filled with water and blown, emits a sound similar to the singing of a bird.

Paredes Candia also refers to the use of the little drums and harmonicas. Playing these instruments, the worshipers sang and danced, some of them kneeling.

At 24: 00, “the child was born”, when minors were already sleeping hoping to receive their gifts on the following day. Then, adults prayed, congratulated each other and mostly attended the midnight Mass (misa de gallo).

But also the Christmas delicacies were very different. Arandia recalls having seen the Panettone in the late 1970s, since his childhood he ate fritters with honey and rice pudding.

But Cajias emphasizes that there is something that refuses to go away: the picana, the Christmas dish par excellence. “The picana still beats the Turkey, I believe”, he says.

The following day, as recalled by Paredes Candia, a “juntucha,” leftovers were heated, everything what they had left on Christmas Eve, and prepared some drinks to cure the uneasiness of those who stayed overnight celebrating.

Cajias and Arandia agree that individualism and modernity tend to end up with these and other customs involving sharing among family and friends, and incidentally taking time away for spiritual reflection.

“Now it’s ‘I consume then exist’.” However, before one was happy just to dance and sing a Christmas Carol by Jesus child; “those are values that have no price,” says Arandia.