11 Most Interesting Colombian Christmas Traditions

Ah, Christmas in Colombia!

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.

That goes for anywhere in the world!

I always find it especially interesting learning about different countries’ special Christmas traditions, and Colombian Christmas is certainly no exception.

After living in Colombia for over a decade, I got to experience many of the neatest Colombian Christmas traditions.

While there’s not really anywhere in Colombia where you’ll find snowmen or winter wonderlands, there are still plenty of fun Christmas traditions in Colombia!

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

Whether you’re planning to visit Colombia for Christmas, want to have a Colombian Christmas celebration where you live, or you’re just curious about the some of the Colombian Christmas traditions, you’ll learn all about how funny traditions like the Colombian Christmas traditions with pranks, Colombian Christmas food, who brings gifts to the good children in Colombia, and lots more of the most popular Christmas in Colombia traditions.

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

Photo of a decorative tree with a white top and star celebrating Christmas in Colombia 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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Colombian Christmas Traditions Introduction

In all my time living in Colombia, people were always excited for Christmas, and I lived in the very not winter wonderland or Christmasy feeling of the Caribbean heat of Cartagena. Still, people always looked forward to Christmas as a time to spend time with family, have some fun, and enjoy these Colombian Christmas traditions.

So, Christmas in Colombia is definitely a big deal!

That’s 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, like most countries. There are also a few pretty quirky ones like the Dia de los Inocentes Colombian tradition (don’t worry I’ll tell you all about this funny Colombian Christmas tradition of pranks below).

In my time living in Colombia, I always found some of the differences between how certain aspects of Christmas is celebrated in Colombia and the US or other countries pretty interesting, although there are plenty of similarities too.

Here, I’ll be sharing 11 of the most interesting Colombian Christmas traditions I noticed during my time living there.

Before I get to that, I just want to share one quick piece of advice if you happen to be planning on traveling to spend Christmas in Colombia.

It is, like much the rest of the world, one of the busiest tourist seasons.

Especially Cartagena where I lived 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. In fact, this was always the busiest time of year, so expect big crowds.

So, it’s good to make your reservations early!

Hotels and even hostels do fill up, and some charge exorbitant prices if you book last minute and they actually do still have rooms available. This goes not just for Cartagena, but other popular destinations in Colombia too.

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 and knock those reservations out early. If you’re traveling elsewhere in Colombia, you might also want to check out my guide to the best areas to stay in Bogotá, and all the other destinations I cover in the Other Destinations section.

*Want some help planning your trip? Take the hassle out of planning and let the experts at our partner BnB Colombia Tours help you! Fill out this form and they will work with you to design a truly unforgettable, custom made trip to Colombia for Christmas or anytime of year.

Photo of souvenirs, decorations, and lights under an archway around Christmas in Colombia.
Colorful souvenirs at and lights around the time of Christmas in Colombia.

11 Most Fascinating Christmas in Colombia Traditions

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

All but one of these is city agnostic, and you’re likely to see just about anywhere you happen to be in Colombia at Christmas.

However, I did include one Colombian Christmas tradition that only applies to Medellín, since 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 Colombian Christmas traditions, 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. Noche de Velitas Kicks off the Colombian Christmas Season

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 around Colombia carry on this tradition, and it has become over time an ingrained part of Christmas in Colombia.

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

In fact, you’ll want to watch your step the day after this Colombia Christmas tradition, as you’ll almost certainly see tons of wax and candle stubs covering the streets.

Photo of a girl lighting a candle during the Colombian Christmas tradition of Noche de Velitas.
Susana lighting some candles on our balcony on the Night of the Candles in Cartagena.

This Colombian Christmas tradition is considered the official kickoff of the Colombia Christmas season in most of the country, and people often celebrate with family, debut their new Christmas season clothes and outfits.

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.

Oh, and lots of people go out and party, enjoying the Cartagena nightlife, which I’m sure is the case in other cities too. The nice thing is the next day is always a national holiday, regardless of which day of the week it falls too.

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.

Susana loves this tradition and she pretty much always makes sure to light her candles, even now that we live in the US. It will be neat to carry on this Colombian Christmas tradition with our daughter one day!

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

Photo of 2 candles burning during the Colombia Christmas tradition of night of the little candles.
Expect to see lots of little candles burning all for this Colombian Christmas tradition.

2. Christmas in Medellín Starts with the Alborada

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 Christmas 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 around 2 or 3 am, you should see lots of fireworks all over the city. So, expect to hear fireworks all night if you are in Medellín this time of year.

It is probably worth pointing out that lots of people get burned, injured, or killed every year during this Colombian Christmas tradition, not to mention 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 fireworks off yourself.

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 During Christmas in Colombia

Las Novenas, which technically are have the full name of Novenas de Aguinaldo, is a Christmas tradition in Colombia, Venezuela, and Ecuador. It is very 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 at least in my experience seeing people celebrate this Colombia Christmas tradition.

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.

I remember a few years where Susana and her friends organized a group celebration of this Colombian Christmas tradition and they would take turns hosting. They would serve snacks, read the prayers, and sing the songs.

My experience seeing them and others celebrate this tradition is that for the very religious, this is a big deal. However, 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.
More Christmas Decorations at Monserrate.

4. Colombia’s Christmas Lights and Decorations

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

I would say based on my experience, individual people don’t get quite as hardcore as some people in the US or elsewhere about putting up tons of lights for Christmas in Colombia. Although, you usually do see a handful of neat displays.

However, most cities in Colombia will have lots of pretty light displays and Christmas decorations in public spaces. Even a lot of small towns put up elaborate light displays in their main plazas.

Photo of lights in the shape of a Christmas tree with a historic church in the background during Christmas in Colombia.
I always loved seeing the charm of Christmas lights and Cartagena’s historic architecture!

When I was living in Cartagena, the Noche de las Velitas on December 7 is normally when the decorations were lit for the first time, and they usually stayed lit at least through Three Kings Day on January 6. My understanding is that’s pretty common throughout the rest of Colombia, although they may light them the weekend before December 7th and keep them up through the weekend after January 6 as well.

So, even if you’re not going to be in Colombia for Christmas day itself, if you’re traveling around that time, you have a good chance of seeing the Christmas lights.

And, they are definitely worth seeing!

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 in front of a church in a small plaza during Colombian Christmas time.
A cool old sailing ship display set up in the Plaza Trinidad one year in Cartagena.

We always really enjoyed spending at least one night walking around town and seeing all the lights. Also, I always loved when they hung lights along Cartagena’s historic walls, and the clocktower lit up is alwasy really pretty too.

Not to mention, honestly, you’d be surprised how neat palm trees look with Christmas lights!

Medellín is especially well known for elaborate light displays along the river. We were there around Christmas time one year and saw them. There were lots of street food and drink vendors set up and it was a neat atmosphere. They are definitely well worth seeing if you will be passing through Medellín in December. There are also pretty lights usually at Pueblito Paisa.

Monserrate also has very neat light displays if you are in Bogotá for Christmas time. We were there once around Christmas time but only went up during the day. I imagine it’s really neat seeing them lit up at night though.

Photo of the Colombian Christmas tradition of light displays over the river in Medellín showing a light display that looks like a boat.
The neat light displays on the riverfront in Medellín we saw one year.

5. Christmas Food in Colombia Part 1: Colombian Christmas Eve Meal

Unlike my home country of the US where Christmas Day itself is usually the most important celebration, the night of December 24 is the main celebration of Christmas in Colombia and when most will have big 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 offer the traditional Colombian Christmas Eve Dinner.

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. I have also seen rice with spinach and just regular white rice offered at Christmas dinners too.

While usually not eaten for Christmas Eve, another traditional Colombian Christmas food 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 is in Venezuela, but it’s still common to see this classic comfort food prepared more often around the holidays. I always saw lots of tiendas and street vendors, and even some restaurants selling them around this time of year, and there’s actually even a festival in Cartagena devoted to the pastel held most years in the week leading up to Christmas.

Photo of the Colombian Christmas food tamal or pastel split in half on a plate with a fork next to it and more wrapped in leaves in the background.
Tamals, also called pasteles, depending on the region, are another common Colombian Christmas food.

6. Colombian Christmas Food Part 2: Buñuelos and Natilla

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

Buñuelos are small fried 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 and salty with just a hint of sweetness.

Photo of the Christmas food in Colombia buñuelos frying in a vat of oil.
Buñuelos are one of the most popular Colombian Christmas snacks.

They are notoriously difficult to fry correctly and get them to hold their form. That’s because 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, this Colombian Christmas food is pretty easy to find at street fry stalls and bakeries. So, I’d say it’s best to leave it to the experts.

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

They are actually quite commonly enjoyed for breakfast year round. We used to live near a spot in Crespo (by the Exito supermarket) that is famous for having some of the best buñuelos in Cartagena.

So, while they are enjoyed al year, they are also a very traditional Colombian Christmas food. People often eat them as snacks with family and friends at get togethers around Christmas time in Colombia.

Photo of a stack of the Colombian Christmas Food buñuelos on a table with one split open showing a fluffy center.
These buñuelos look perfect!

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

Thickened with cornstarch, this Colombian Christmas food is a custard. However, in my experience, the consistency can vary from being liquidy, almost like pudding, to thicker and light almost like a gelatin, to being more firm sliceable.

I always kind of preferred the latter, but my experience was that natilla could be really hit or miss, but lots of Colombians love it. If I had to choose one of these Colombian Christmas foods to eat, I’d choose buñuelos everyday, but I’d still suggest trying natilla if you spend Christmas in Colombia.

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 the Colombian Christmas traditional dessert natilla wtih a cut in half on a plate with stick of cinnamon on one half and coconut flakes sprinkled around.
Natilla is another favorite Colombian Christmas Food

7. Who Brings Gifts to the Good Children in Colombia on Christmas?

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 influence of the US on worldwide pop culture, 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.

8. Where Do Children Find Their Christmas Gifts in Colombia?

If you’re wondering where do children find their Christmas gifts in Colombia, the answer is usually under the tree, similar to where we always had our presents in the US.

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

Christmas gifts are usually 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 Claus, and children will write letters to Niño Jesus for the gifts they want to get similar to how we would write them to Santa when we were kids.

Photo of boxes wrapped with red yarn representing the Colombian Christmas traditions of gifts from Niño Jesus on Christmas Eve.
In Colombia, Christmas gifts come from the Niño Jesus, not Santa Claus, and children often get more gifts on Three Kings Day.

9. 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 in Spanish, is on January 6.

While not every family follows this Colombian Christmas tradition today, it is still pretty 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 usually start to come down after January 6 too, although many cities will leave them up through that Monday holiday.

10. Pranks on Día de los Inocentes Colombian Tradition

The Día de los Inocentes Christmas tradition of pranks is in my opinion the funniest and quirkiest of all the Colombian Christmas traditions.

During this Colombia Christmas tradition, pranks are played on friends and family! It is basically April Fools Day in December.

The Día de los Inocentes Colombian tradition is celebrated on December 28. It’s actually a common celebration in much of Latin America, although not everyone in Colombia takes part.

This history behind this holiday is actually quite dark, as it relates to a legend of 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 the city Pasto in Western Colombia, it is considered the official kickoff of the Carnival de Blancos y Negros (which we had a really fun time at when we went).

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

I have to be honest, this the Día de Inocentes Colombian tradition never seemed like a big deal in Cartagena. I heard mention of it, but never saw a lot of people actually playing pranks on each other. Fortuntely, I never had a prank played on me either.

So, it seems like it’s a bigger deal in other places like Pasto. Still, it’s not a bad idea to be on the lookout for this Colombian Christmas tradition of pranks and practical jokes!

11. 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 front desk and maintenance staff.

Photo of a couple holding up Colombian pesos to give for Aguinaldos during Christmas in Colombia.
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 functions like the Aguinaldo in Mexico.

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 would 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 in the weeks leading up to Christmas in Colombia.

Bonus Tip for Celebrating Christmas in Colombia: Be 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.

So even if you don’t take part in any of these Colombian Christmas traditions directly, be sure to enjoy yourself if you spend Christmas in Colombia!

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.

If you’ll be in Colombia for Christmas or around the holiday season, be sure to check out this post on the most interesting New Years traditions in Colombia too!

Oh and do have a great time!

Cheers and Merry Exploring!

Did you like this post?

If you like fun traditions, you might also love seeing some of Colombia’s small towns, many of rich have a rich and fascinating cultural heritage. Some of my favorites are the charming Villa de Leyva, which we visited one Christmas and saw the neat decorations they put up, Barichara, often cited as Colombia’s prettiest small town, and Mompox, a colonial gem that isn’t visited all that often. Please, do also check out all the other content on the site about Cartagena as well as the Other Destinations section for more places to visit in Colombia!

Planning a trip to Cartagena?

Be sure to check out the rest of the site to help you plan!

In particular, you might want to check out my guide to the best areas to stay, my list of over 75 things to do, my picks for the best Cartagena tours, the best day trips from Cartagena, my suggested packing list, my guide to the Rosario Islands, and my guide to all the beaches of Cartagena.