I once spent Christmas in Ecuador, in the colonial city of Cuenca which is known for its devoted Catholic population.
It is by far the biggest holiday in Ecuador (only slightly beating Independence Day in Cuenca).
Although I’m not a practicing Catholic I really enjoyed the Christmas traditions in Ecuador.
It felt somewhat familiar and yet so different as Christmas in Ecuador is shaped by its history of Spanish conquistadors, indigenous culture and of course modern influences from American culture.
Although I was missing my family back in Canada, the Christmas in traditions in Ecuador are fascinating.
Instead of focusing on what I was missing, I was thankful for the cultural experience.
Ecuador Weather in December
Although Ecuador is on the equator, hence its name, it is not an overly hot destination. For the most part the weather in Ecuador is spring-like.
The higher altitudes in the Andes are cooler and some seasons have more rain than others.
Christmas in Cuenca Ecuador isn’t a cold affair but rather a warm one during the day with plenty of celebrations happening outdoors.
At night jeans and a light sweater are more than enough in the Andes.
How Do They Celebrate Christmas in Ecuador?
The Christmas season in Ecuador begins on December 16th with a Christmas tradition known as novena.
Novena refers to the nine days of preparation for the birth of Jesus Christ. Each night represents one month that Mary carried baby Jesus.
Families and neighbours gather to sing carols known villancicos and to pray for the poor and the sick at a different home or at church.
The novena honours the Three Wise Men, Mary, and Joseph during their search for shelter before the birth of Jesus.
Nativity Scene – Pesebres
An important part of Christmas in any Ecuadorian household is the nativity or pesebre, a representation of the birth of Christ. But it’s not quite the same as what you would see in North America.
What remains the same is that is comprises of a stable covered in grass and straw with Mother Mary and Joseph.
The outside of the stable has farm animal figurines – sheep, cows, sometimes llamas, and the Three Wise Men.
However, in Ecuador baby Jesus does not appear in his crib until midnight on Christmas Eve.
This household tradition also happens on a larger scale with contests happening in cities for the best nativity scene.
In Quito, for example, the Nativity or Naciemiento is on a large hill and consists of a very large statue of Mary with wings.
From mid-December to the first week of January, there will also be music, singing, dancing, and vendors selling traditional food and desserts.
El Pase del Niño Viajero
El Pase del Niño is a traditional Christmas pageant that occurs between mid-December to Christmas Eve.
It is a procession of statues of baby Jesus that’s indicative of the journey a pregnant Mary and Joseph took on their way to Bethlehem.
The parade includes plenty of music, singing, and dancing to celebrate the birth of Jesus.
While this happens in towns all throughout Ecuador, it is most common in the Andean region.
The largest procession in Latin America happens every year on December 24th in the deeply religious city of Cuenca.
The parade starts in the morning and runs until late afternoon.
People in Ecuador travel from all over the Andes to line the streets, but there’s no rush as it’s eight hours long so there’s no fear of missing it.
Although you do want to catch the main sighting, which is the baby or El Niño who is carried to the Cathedral de la Inmaculada.
Be warned there is quite a bit of the alcoholic fermented chicha so it’s best to watch the beginning as at the end some of the audience can be a bit sloppy.
It’s an amazing mix of traditional Catholic floats and the indigenous Quichua music and dance.
There is a dance called Baile de Cintas which looks so similar to a May pole dance with Tucuman dancers skipping around the pole weaving ribbons.
Santa Claus is a relatively new phenomena in Ecuador as it was once only a religious holiday that has become more commercial over the past few decades.
Writing Christmas letters to Papa Noel is a common Christmas tradition in Ecuador.
What is unique about it is that one places the lists inside an old shoe by the side of the bed.
Then on Christmas Day, Papa Noel comes bringing presents and also replaces the old shoes with new ones.
Ecuador Christmas Decorations
Having a Christmas tree was not a part of Christmas traditions in Ecuador until recently.
Fir trees are not native to Ecuador and are too expensive to purchase. So, most homes put up artificial trees or a cypress tree.
And instead of using traditional ornaments, the trees have colourful straw ornaments decorating them which are re-used throughout the year for other celebrations.
But within the cities, especially in Cuenca, there are many decorations and lights in the main square.
Although Santa is not one of the older Christmas traditions in Ecuador, Amigo Secreto or secret friend is surprisingly similar to what we know as Secret Santa.
People anonymously give inexpensive presents or drawings within a group of friends.
Nochebuena – Christmas Eve in Ecuador
In many places around the world, especially in Latin America, the main celebration is on Christmas Eve.
In Ecuador, Christmas Eve or Nochebuena (translated to good night) is an important part of Christmas tradition.
It’s a day when the whole family gets together, exchanges presents and shares a meal.
Christmas Eve dinner or Cena de Nochebuena consists of turkey, roast ham or chicken, salads, potatoes, rice, desserts, and plenty of wine.
In some places there is a special Christmas rice that is a sweet to the typical white rice normally served.
It is still common for the farmers and townsfolk in the Andean region to celebrate Christmas by going to church and having a simple dinner of roasted pig or guinea pig or cuy with corn and native grains on Christmas Eve.
Christmas in Quito and other large cities has evolved from a traditional religious holiday celebrating the birth of Christ to a commercial one…but not on the same scale as North America.
After dinner, everyone gathers and heads to church for misa de gallo or midnight mass, which now is often before midnight so children can attend.
Families bring their baby Jesus from the nativity screen so that the priest can bless it.
Ecuadorians return home from mass and begin celebrating the birth of Christ with a fiesta. They party late into the night with music, dancing, and drinking.
Christmas Day in Ecuador
Also known as La Navidad, Christmas Day in Ecuador is less busy than the night before.
People generally sleep in after partying late on Noche Buena. And in the afternoon there’s usually a smaller family party to go to with food, alcohol, and you guessed it, more music and dancing.
And of course the real festivities begin with planning for New Years in Ecuador, which was a celebration I loved.
Read here about New Year’s Eve in Ecuador, where I jumped over fire, ate grapes, and made my first effigy.
How to Say Merry Christmas in Ecuador
Merry Christmas in Spanish is Feliz Navidad and don’t forget Happy New Year, which is Próspero Año Nuevo in Spanish
11 Ecuador Christmas Food to Try
Dinner on Christmas Eve is the largest meal of the holiday season for Ecuadorians and involves a lot of preparation.
Here are a few dishes that you would see served on the dinner table on Christmas Eve in Ecuador.
Pavo al Horno
Having roast turkey, known as Pavo navideño or Christmas Turkey, served on the table is a new tradition.
It was brought over by the Ecuadorians living in America.
It actually makes me quite sad as turkey is very expensive in Ecuador yet families feel compelled to embrace this tradition.
In Cuenca I wanted to make a Christmas dinner for friends at my hostel but was shocked at the price of turkey so instead we indulged in shrimp.
I wrote more about it here: Would you buy a $300 turkey?
Hornado de Chancho
Perhaps I’m biased with a site named Bacon is Magic, but why would you ever eat a bland and dry turkey when you could have roast pork?
Roasted pork leg is a popular Ecuadorian dish often find on the table at Christmas.
Traditionally it’s made by slow roasting the leg in spices, chicha, and lard in an outdoor clay oven.
But very often when cooking at home, you can substitute beer for chicha and butter for lard.
Pernil is slow-roasted, tender pork loin very similar to poc chuc in Mexico. It’s considered a must-have Christmas tradition in Ecuador.
It’s marinated in orange juice, onions, garlic, annatto paste, cloves, cinnamon, cumin, and cane sugar.
The marinade is similar to the one used when making hornado but the cloves and cinnamon give it a distinct flavour.
Roasted Guinea Pig (Cuy)
In the mountainous regions of Ecuador, Christmas Eve dinner is very simple.
It comprises of corn, grains, and meat that’s available in abundance: guinea pig.
I know this may seem off-putting at first but the guinea pigs in Ecuador aren’t like the cute little pets in North America.
They are more similar to rabbit and actually quite delicious – here’s my take (with a video) on How to Eat Cuy – Guinea Pig in Ecuador.
An Andean dish that literally means heated, it is essentially leftovers. Any other time of the year calentado is usually last night’s leftovers of meat with rice and beans.
However during Christmas in Ecuador, Christmas morning calentado is last nights pork dinner, or for the more fortunate, turkey.
Chicha is a traditional fermented beverage to have during Christmas in Ecuador. You can also find it in Peru or Brazil.
It is very high in alcohol and can be made from yuca, the root of the cassava plant. In the Andes it is more common to drink chichi from corn or quinoa.
One of my absolute favourite drinks in Ecuador to warm up. Canelazo appears often at Ecuadorian celebrations, especially during Christmas in Ecuador.
Made from the sugar-cane alcohol aguardiente it is mixed with cinnamon, water and sugar. It is served warm and feels festive like a hot toddy or mulled wine.
It is very common during festivals in the Andes when it is cool at night, and almost too delicious.
Similar to Crema de Vie in Cuba, rompope is an alcoholic eggnog and is also served in Mexico.
These doughnut like deep-fried balls are served with sweet syrup and are a tradition in Ecuador that harken back to the Spanish settlement.
They are not unique to Christmas in Ecuador, you also find these Christmas cookies in other Latin American countries and in Spain.
If you’re looking for the best buñuelos, Ambato is famous for them.
A Christmas chocolate yule log that you can find around the world.
Deep-fried dough rings in a sweet cinnamon syrup
Where to Stay at Christmas in Cuenca Ecuador
Hostels are different in Ecuador and often have a private room and bathroom.
This hostel is a series of buildings owned by a Ecuadorian single mother and her family. Each building is different.
If you don’t like one room you can always ask to move to another as each has its own character.
There are dorms and private rooms and a common kitchen area so it feels like you’re living in an apartment rather a typical hostel.
You can also book excursions through the hostel.
Mid-Range Hotels in Cuenca
Luxury Hotels in Cuenca
If you are looking for luxury accommodation, then the Mansion Alcazar is a historic hotel in great surroundings. But it also comes with the price tag to match.
Have you spent Christmas in Ecuador? I’d love to know your favourite Christmas traditions in Ecuador.
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Images (c) Timothy Tolle (novena),