Will you spend Christmas in Ecuador? Whether you are headed to the Galapagos Islands, the beautiful beaches of the Pacific Coast, the jungles of the Amazon Basin, or the high Andes, there are a few customs you might like to understand before arriving.
Christmas Lights Galore
Most Ecuadorians do not decorate their homes with Christmas lights, so don’t expect neighborhoods full of color. However, cities and towns often decorate! Budgets change from year to year so while no city is guaranteed to have a display, when they do, they are usually very bright and colorful. Our favorites have been in Cuenca on the Plaza Otorongo, in Quito along the Avenida Naciones Unidas near Parque Carolina, and Parque Sucre in Riobamba.
The Largest Christmas Tree in Ecuador
Small cities in Ecuador love to proclaim that they have the tallest Christmas tree in the country. In 2017, the southern city of Machala wins the contest, with a 33-meter tall tree, brightly lit with changing colors. But on the opposite end of Ecuador, in the far north, Carchi has a tree almost as tall, 30 meters. No matter where you are staying in Ecuador, be sure to visit the central plaza to see the local version of the most beautiful Christmas tree around.
The nine days before Christmas, called the Novena de Aguinaldos, are traditionally saved for prayer. Each day of the novena corresponds with a month of Mary’s pregnancy, finally ending with her arrival in Bethlehem and Jesus’s birth. The novena always includes the same recitation with the addition of a special prayer for each unique day. In many communities, these religious days of prayer have become social events, opportunities for families, officemates, or neighborhoods to celebrate the season with special drinks and holiday food.
Like many places around the world, Ecuador celebrates Christmas with lots of sweets and special drinks! Buñuelos, balls of enriched dough are deep-fried like doughnuts and served with dark cane syrup. They are famous in Ambato where a December festival serves up the best buñuelos in the country. Another favorite are mistelas, small hard candies filled with a liquor of the same name. Rompope is a delicious drink made from eggs, milk, sugar and alcohol. While it uses the same ingredients as our eggnog, it is more potent! It is sometimes served by the thimbleful for a reason.
Ecuadorians also eat roast turkey, roast pork, and sometimes ham around the Christmas holidays. Year-round favorites become special with the addition of prime ingredients – like a ceviche made with langostino instead of shrimp.
A manger is a pesebre in Spanish. In Ecuador, the same word also means nativity. Many shopping centers, restaurants, and hotels as well as churches have elaborate nativity scenes placed in central locations. The indoor market at Iñaquito, Quito has a small nativity scene placed near the center of the building. Some years, Mary, Joseph, and the Three Kings loom over Quito from the heights of the Panecillo. All pesebres will have something in common – baby Jesus does not appear until midnight on Christmas Eve!
Pase del Niño
Ecuadorians love to celebrate the Pase del Niño which takes place on December 24th, Christmas Eve in most communities. Local residents carry a statue or image of Jesus as a child through the city streets. Jesus is often accompanied by Mary, Joseph, the Three Kings, locals in native costume, bands of traditional musicians, and folkloric dancers. Cuenca celebrates one of the most famous Pase del Niño processions in Ecuador but many towns hold some version of this event. Double check the schedule where you will be staying as some towns hold processions earlier in the season, like in the Province of Bolívar which celebrates the Pase del Niño 15 days or so before Christmas Eve. Some cities, like Quito, will have smaller Pases del Niño in different local neighborhoods.
Noche Buena, or Christmas Eve, is the most celebrated day of the Christmas holidays. Most family run establishments, like grocery stores and restaurants, will close early to prepare for traditional Christmas Eve rituals. Some families will attend midnight mass, many will have their traditional Christmas Dinner, and most will exchange presents on this night. If you are staying in a small town, it might be a good idea to pre-arrange your evening meal or make sure restaurants aimed at tourists will be open.
Traditional Christmas Dinner
The traditional Christmas dinner is usually roast turkey or roast suckling pig. Because ovens in Ecuador are so small, many families will pre-order their roast turkey rather than make it at home. Just check out the advertisements on many cement block walls: “Pavos Hornados” followed by a local phone number. Many families serve the larger family meal on Christmas Eve rather than Christmas Day.