Colombian Christmas Traditions

Ah, Christmas time!

Besides being a wonderful time of the year to enjoy time with family and/or travel while getting some much needed time off, it’s also a time full of traditions.

Every country has its own special Christmas traditions, and Colombia is no exception.

While, there’s no where in Colombia where you’ll find snowmen or winter wonderlands, there are plenty of fun Colombian Christmas traditions!

So, if you’re wondering how does Colombia celebrate Christmas, how is Christmas celebrated in Colombia, or how do they celebrate Christmas in Colombia, read on to learn about some of the most fascinating Christmas traditions in Colombia!

Oh, and you might also be interested in this article about Colombian New Years traditions too!

Photo of a Colombian Christmas traditions decorative Christmas tree at Monserrate in Bogotá.
Learn about some of the most interesting Colombian Christmas traditions here! (Pictured is the Christmas tree at Bogotá’s Monserrate hill).

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Christmas in Colombia Introduction

Whether you are just curious about Christmas traditions in Colombia or whether you are planning on traveling for Christmas in Colombia and maybe want to participate in some Colombian Christmas traditions yourself, you’ll be happy to know, this holiday is a big deal.

That is probably not too surprising since Colombia is an overwhelmingly Catholic country.

There are some really interesting Colombian Christmas traditions, including some tasty Colombian Christmas foods and some unique Colombian Christmas desserts plus a few pretty quirky ones and differences between how certain aspects of Christmas is celebrated in Colombia and the US or other countries.

Here, I’ll be sharing 11 of the most interesting Colombian Christmas traditions.

One quick note if you are planning on traveling to Colombia for Christmas. It is, like much the rest of the world, one of the busiest tourist seasons.

Especially Cartagena can get crowded, not just with foreign visitors but also Colombians escaping the cooler temperatures of the interior for the warm weather and beautiful beaches and nearby islands.

So, it’s good to make your reservations early. To help with that, you can check out my guide to the best areas to stay in Cartagena or my picks for the best boutique hotels, best luxury hotels, best beachfront hotels, or best hostels.

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Photo of souvenirs with Colombian Christmas decorations and lights in the background.
Colorful Colombian souvenirs at Christmas time.

11 Interesting Christmas Traditions in Colombia

Ok, let’s get into the most interesting Colombia Christmas traditions.

All but one of these is city agnostic. There is one Colombian Christmas tradition that only applies to Medellín, but it’s one of the country’s biggest events associated with this time of year (although its origin actually has nothing to do with Christmas), so I felt it deserved to be here.

Of course, every family is different and some may or may not celebrate all or even any of these Christmas traditions in Colombia, but you’re likely to see at least some of them if you are traveling Colombia at Christmas time.

You might be asking yourself why is this a top 11. Well, everyone does top 10s, 11 has a special significance for Cartagena (this is a Cartagena centric site after all) since it declared its independence on November 11, 1811 (11/11/11), and I think you deserve just a bit more value for your eyeballs.

1. Lighting Candles for the Noche de Velitas

One of the neatest Colombian Christmas traditions is the lighting of candles on the night of December 7, known as the Noche de Velitas, or literally, the Night of the Little Candles.

This celebration is related to the Catholic celebration of the Immaculate Conception of Mary on December 8. When it was declared official Catholic doctrine in 1854 by a Papal Bull, Catholics around the world lit candles in celebration.

Today, people in Colombia carry on this tradition.

People light candles on their balconies, in their windowsill, and many on the sidewalks.

In fact, you’ll almost certainly see lots of wax covering the streets the next day.

Photo of a girl lighting a candle on the Día de las Velitas, one of the most famous Colombian Christmas traditions.
Susana lighting some candles on our balcony on the Night of the Candles in Cartagena.

This is considered the official kickoff of the Christmas season in most of Colombia, and people often celebrate with family, put on new outfits, and lots of people go out and party, especially since the next day is a holiday regardless of what day of the week it falls on.

In Cartagena, it’s most common for people to light the candles at midnight and make wishes, but people can light them anytime that evening and the most common time varies city to city.

It’s a neat tradition, and in the days leading up to it, you can find lots of street vendors selling cheap candles if you’d like to participate in this Colombian Christmas tradition.

You can read more about the history of this tradition in my full article on the Noche de Velitas in Colombia.

Photo of 2 candles burning on Día de las Velitas in one of the Christams traditions in Colombia.
Expect to see lots of little candles burning all around Colombia for this Christmas tradition.

2. The Alborada in Medellín

The Alborada is the unofficial kickoff of the Christmas season in Medellín.

Honestly, I am not super familiar with this Colombia Christmas tradition since I’ve never lived in Medellín or been there for the date.

According to this great article from Medellínliving.com, the tradition dates to the demobilization of a paramilitary group that operated in Medellín in 2003.

To celebrate their demobilization, they gave out fireworks to residents of the barrios they controlled to be fired off on November 30, a few days after their official demobilization.

Over time, it became an annual tradition and was adopted by more and more barrios and has basically become a city wide event that is not really connected to the paramilitaries at all but just seen as the start of the holiday season.

My understanding is it’s quite the event and sight, especially if you get a good vantage point in one of the areas a bit higher up in the hills and mountains on the outskirts of the city.

From 11 pm to 2 or 3, you should see lots of fireworks all over the city.

It is probably worth pointing out that lots of people get burned, injured, or killed every year in this and all over elsewhere in Colombia by fireworks, the effects of drinking, and a mixture of the two, during December (you may see fireworks in different cities on Noche de las Velitas, Christmas Eve, and New Years Eve too).

For that reason and the celebration’s origins, some locals are not very fond of the celebration, and you should exercise caution if you are going to shoot any off yourself.

Also, expect to hear fireworks all night.

That aside, it’s supposedly really pretty and in my opinion a neat Christmas tradition in Colombia, although it might be nice if long term the city organized a more professional display.

3. Celebrating las Novenas

Las Novenas, technically the full name of Novenas de Aguinaldo, is a Christmas tradition in Colombia, Venezuela, and Ecuador primarily and is similar to a tradition known as Las Posadas in Mexico.

It dates to the 1700s when a Catholic friar began saying a series of prayers for the 9 days leading up to Christmas Eve from December 16 to December 24.

For each day, there is an accompanying reading that relates the Biblical history of the period leading up to Jesus’s birth. Many of the prayers also include parts that are commonly sung.

It’s common for Colombians to do the novenas with extended family, church groups, or friend groups. Often a different person may host each day with a small get together with snacks (like those in #6 below) or even drinks.

My experience is for the very religious, this is a big deal, for the more nominal religious, which is still most Colombians, it is as much about socializing and keeping a cherished childhood memory and beloved Colombian Christmas tradition alive.

Photo of the chapel at Monserrate with Colombian Christmas decorations. on an arch in front.
Monserrate Sanctuary, Bogota, Colombia

4. Christmas Lights and Decorations

Of course, this isn’t so much a Colombian Christmas tradition, but a Christmas tradition, period.

Most cities in Colombia will have pretty light displays and Christmas decorations.

Noche de las Velitas on December 7 is normally when the decorations are lit for the first time, and they usually stay lit at least through Three Kings Day on January 6.

Photo of a Christmas tree made from lights in Cartagena with a church in the background as an example of Christmas in Colombia traditions and decorations.
Hard to beat the charm of Christmas lights and Cartagena’s historic architecture!

There is usually a good mix of more traditionally, wintery, I’m assuming US inspired decorations like Christmas trees, snowflakes, and ornaments, but also some neat and more unique displays.

Cartagena has had elaborate sailing ships, light tunnels, and one year a slightly odd Avianca airplane display in the past.

Photo of a sailing ship made from lights around Christmas in Colombia time.
A cool old sailing ship display set up in the Plaza Trinidad one year in Cartagena.

Medellín is especially well known for elaborate light displays on the river. It is well worth seeing if you will be passing through in December.

Cartagena is really neat to see as the Clocktower and walls usually have lights set up, and most cities will have displays in plazas and public parks. Smaller cities and towns should have decorations up in their main plazas.

Monserrate also has very neat light displays if you are in Bogotá for Christmas time.

Photo of a colorful boat made from lights on the river in Medellín, a Colombian Christmas tradition.
The neat light displays on the riverfront in Medellín.

In people’s homes, it is quite common now to see Christmas trees with lights and ornaments and decorations like wreaths.

Big elaborate lights and decorations on people’s homes aren’t quite as common as in the US but some people do put them up.

5. Christmas Eve Meal

For Colombians, the night of December 24 is the main celebration of Christmas and when most will have family get togethers.

It’s common to have a meal, and many people also go out and party (or just party with family at their house!).

If you happen to be traveling in Colombia during Christmas time, many restaurants do a special meal for Christmas Eve.

You often have to buy tickets or make reservations ahead of time to do this, so be sure to check out if there are any restaurants offering it if you want to be sure you get a spot.

If you happen to be in Cartagena, you might want to check what places on my list of 50 restaurants to try in Cartagena offers it.

Pernil de Cerdo, technically meant to be pork leg but often made with pork shoulder, is the most common meat served for Christmas dinner in Colombia but you may also see pork loin, beef roasts, or occasionally turkey.

Usually Christmas dinner in Colombia is served with a sauce and rice with raisins. In Cartagena, it is usually coconut rice.

While usually not eaten for Christmas Eve, another traditional favorite food at Christmas time in Colombia is tamals, called pastels in Cartagena.

Each region has its own slightly different variation of this mix of meat, vegetables, corn meal, and in some places rice, steamed in plantain leaves.

I would say they are not quite as a big a deal or Christmas traditional food in Colombia as the very similar hallaca in Venezuela but it’s still common to see this classic comfort food prepared more often around the holidays.

Photo of a tamal or pastel, a favorite traditional Colombian Christmas food.
Tamals or pastel, depending on the region, are another common Colombian Christmas food.

6. Buñuelos and Natilla – Traditional Colombian Christmas Food

Besides that common Christmas dinner, the two other most iconic Christmas in Colombia foods are buñuelos and natilla.

Buñuelos are small corn meal and cheese fritters in the shape of balls.

These are slightly different from buñuelos you might find in Mexico or other Spanish speaking countries which are a bit more like donuts.

In Colombia, they sort of resemble giant donut holes but are more savory/salty than sweet.

Photo of the Christmas food in Colombia buñuelos frying in a vat of oil.
Buñuelos from Colombia in the process of cooking, traditional Colombian food.

They are notoriously difficult to fry correctly and get them to hold their form. You have to get the temperature of the oil just right so that they don’t fall apart but also don’t burn.

We once tried to make them with out friends Camila and Felipe, and it didn’t go so well.

Luckily they are easy to find at street fry stalls and bakeries, so best to leave it to the experts.

The best ones are golden brown and almost crunchy on the outside while being soft on the inside.

They are actually quite commonly enjoyed for breakfast year round.

However, they are a very traditional Colombian Christmas food for snacks with family and friends at evening get togethers.

Photo of a stack of buñuelos, a favorite snack associated with Christmas traditions in Colombia, with one opened up.
Fritters on the table, typical Colombian food, close-up image

Natilla is also very common as a sweet snack or dessert for Christmas food in Colombia.

It is a custard, although the consistency can vary from being almost puddingesque to more gelatin like to even being sliceable.

It reminds me a lot of sort of a lighter, less mushy and grainy flan (natilla in some other countries is made with egg but not in Colombia by the way).

It sometimes has coconut, raisins, or nuts and pretty much always has cinnamon and is sweetened with the unrefined brown sugar cane known as panela.

It’s a favorite treat, and will usually be dessert at Christmas dinners at restaurants or at family gatherings for Christmas in Colombia.

Photo of natilla, another favorite Christmas sweet in Colombia.
Colombian dessert natilla traditionally served during Christmas

7. Gifts from Niño Jesus

You might be asking yourself if they believe in Santa Claus in Colombia or who brings gifts to the good children in Colombia on Christmas.

While Santa Claus has become more common due to the inevitable influence of the US, traditionally gifts to children in Colombia come from the Niño Jesus, or Baby Jesus, sometimes also called Niño Dios.

Basically, he is the Colombian Santa Claus.

If you’re wondering where do children find their Christmas gifts in Colombia, the answer is usually under the tree.

However, the answer to when children receive their Christmas gifts in Colombia might surprise you.

Christmas gifts are given to children in Colombia the night of December 24 rather than the morning of the 25th. They usually get to open their presents just after midnight, although that might depend on the age of the kids.

Most Colombian families keep these unique Colombian tradition for Christmas alive rather than saying gifts come from Santa Clause, and children will write letters to Niño Jesus for the gifts they want to get.

Photo of Christmas presents, which according to Christmas tradition in Colombia are brought by the Baby Jesus.
In Colombia, Christmas gifts come from the Niño Jesus, not Santa Claus, and children often get more gifts on Three Kings Day.

8. More Gifts on Three Kings Day

Usually seen as the end of the Christmas season in Colombia and much of the rest of the world, Three Kings Day, also known as Día de los 3 Reyes or Día de los Reyes Magos, is on January 6.

While not every family follows this Colombian Christmas tradition today, it is common for children to receive additional gifts on Three Kings Day.

Not a bad deal for the little ones at all if you ask me!

The first Monday after January 6 is also always a holiday in Colombia in honor of this traditional Catholic holiday (so not a bad deal for the adults either!).

With this day being seen as the end of the Christmas season, decorations will start to come down after January 6 too, although most cities will leave them up through that Monday holiday.

9. Día de Inocentes – Colombian Christmas Tradition with Pranks

The Día de los Inocentes is probably the funniest of the Colombian Christmas traditions. Pranks are played on friends and family!

The Día de los Inocentes is on December 28.

It’s actually a common celebration in much of Latin America, although not everyone in Colombia takes part.

It is basically April Fools Day in December. People play pranks on each other.

That’s right, part of Colombian Christmas is practical jokes!

This history behind this holiday is actually quite dark, as it relates to the alleged killing of innocent male children in Bethlehem ordered by Roman appointed King Herod of Judea after he heard of the birth of Jesus as King of the Jews as told in the Gospel of Matthew (many scholars believe the story to be a myth).

As early as the 5th century it became a Christian feast day, known in English as the Feast of the Holy Innocents or Childermas, and the church considers the children to be the first Christian martyrs.

It’s not entirely clear where the tradition of carrying out pranks, or bromas in Spanish came from, but it remains common in Spain and Latin America, including Colombia today.

In Pasto, it is considered the official kickoff of the pre-Carnival de Blancos y Negros.

Traditionally it was common for people to throw water on each other, but in recent years that has been discouraged to save water.

10. Aguinaldos

The Aguinaldos are a sort of extra monetary gift, tip, or bonus given to workers in Colombia.

Some businesses may formally give it, although it is much more commonly more of an optional thing given to service workers.

For example, in the apartment building I lived in, there was always a box where residents could donate what they wanted. The donations were then split up evenly between the desk and maintenance staff.

Photo of a couple holding up Colombian pesos.
Cause who doesn’t like a little extra cash, Colombian Christmas tradition or no?

It is actually a legal requirement in Mexico that businesses pay their employees Aguinaldos,

In Colombia, there is a thing called a prima that is a mandatory extra monthly paycheck split into two payments annually at the middle and end of the year that basically is the Aguinaldo.

This is probably more important for expat residents than tourists in Colombia, but you might see a collection box at hotels or restaurants. While you should not feel obligated to give, if you are so inclined, I’m sure the workers appreciate it.

By the way if you do live in Colombia and employ a maid or cook regularly, it is generally expected and in many cases legally required that you do give them a prima.

And, well, if you live in an apartment building, the porteros will likely make sure you know where the Aguinaldos box is and give you a few reminders.

11. Being Merry

If there’s one thing I’ve learned after a decade living in Colombia, it is that Colombians love to have a good time!

And the merriest time of year, Christmas time, is no exception.

Like I mentioned above, the Alborada, the Noche de Velitas, and Christmas Eve are all big days for both family celebrations and going out on the town.

Expect there to be lively atmospheres those nights and people to be celebrating into the wee hours of the morning, usually with a hearty dose of aguardiente.

If you will be in Cartagena for Christmas, be sure to check out my Cartagena Nightlife Guide to learn where the best places to go out are on those days or any other day of the year!

Most importantly, though, enjoy yourself!

Graphic of a firework sparkling with colorful lights in the background showing how Colombians celebrate Christmas.
Be sure to enjoy Christmas time in Colombia!

Most Interesting Colombian Christmas Traditions Conclusion

Now you know about some of the most interesting traditions for Christmas in Colombia.

Be sure to check out this post on the most interesting New Years traditions in Colombia too!

If you do happen to be traveling in Colombia around the holidays, be sure to be on the lookout for them, and do have a great time!

Cheers and Merry Exploring!

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