The most important gift

As the song says “It’s the most wonderful time of the year” and this is very much true in Bolivia, a largely Christian country, where Christmas is an important holiday. For Bolivians, Christmas traditions are quite different from their North American neighbours, but there are still plenty of similarities. Just like in New Zealand, Bolivia celebrates Christmas during the summertime.

In Bolivia, the Christmas spirit starts in November, when families come together to decorate their Christmas tree. Decorations are often handmade and they are often include religious symbols such as angels and stars. Leading up to Christmas, Bolivians, like other South Americans, eat a special sweet bread called Paneton with hot chocolate or coffee. This tradition originates from the Italians who migrated to Argentina after World War II.

However, in spite of this European tradition, Bolivian Christmas dishes are unique and important. In Cochabamba and La Paz, most people eat “Picana”, a broth made with pork, beef and chicken. Picana is a sweet dish because it includes white wine, onion, corn, potato, carrots, broad beans, tuna, parsley, bay leaves and raisin. In Santa Cruz, where the NPH home is located, most people eat roasted suckling pig.

At NPH Bolivia Christmas is a special time of year for the children. On Christmas Eve the children stay up until midnight for a special fireworks display. Throughout the streets of Bolivia, especially for the middle class, fireworks fill the streets at midnight. On Christmas Day a festive mood is evident in the streets of Bolivia. People often take food and gifts to people living in poverty.

For the NPH children, many of them grew up in poverty and Christmas was just another day in the year. For many of the NPH children, they are astounded when they first celebrate Christmas at NPH. They receive presents for the first time, enjoy fireworks and other fun activities that they have never experienced before.

Another important part of Christmas Day includes the religious activities. At NPH the children celebrate mass on Christmas Eve, where they reenact the nativity story and sing Christmas carols. Due to Covid19 the children are still able to celebrate mass but they need to wear masks. 

The fun doesn’t end on Christmas Day. On the 31st of December the children stay up to midnight. A Bolivian tradition, which originates from Spain, involves grapes. When the clock strikes midnight, Bolivians eat 12 grapes, which represent a special wish for each month of the year. Tradition has it, if the fruit is sweet, your year will also be sweet.

While most Bolivians are Christians, some indigenous cultures have their own faith practises. For these indigenous communities Christmas is not a big celebration. However, in rural indigenous communities, on Christmas Day, you can often hear children praying the rosary in Aymara or Quechua.

Just like in New Zealand, the Bolivian school year ends in December. During the holidays, the NPH caregivers organise a range of activities to keep the children entertained. One favourite activity is the piñata contest. Each home makes and decorates a pinata. A panel of judges determines which is the best one. Last year the winning piñata was a Covid19 virus. The kids really enjoyed popping this piñata and eating all the lollies. “It was a great way to turn fear into hope and happiness,” says Patricia Rueda, NPH Bolivia’s National Director.

Another tradition was started by a former volunteer and Tia Elizabeth, a psychologist – Painting stained glass windows of Christmas themes. “It’s a beautiful way for the kids to show their creativity,” Tía Elizabeth says as she shows off the paintings from last year. Another important tradition is baking Christmas cookies. They are made with lots of love and the kids love eating them.

One of the boys, Milton*, says, “I like Christmas very much, because we have fun together and we celebrate the birth of Jesus.”

After the fireworks display at midnight on Christmas Eve, there is only one thing left to do. The boys and girls know that the gifts are ready to be opened. Santa arrives with gifts for every child. Tradition has it that if you open the presents quickly, you will receive more presents next year.

Milton is always one of the first to open his present. He knows the most important gift is not the one he has in his hands, but the family he has around him.

*Names changed to protect child’s privacy.