As you might imagine, there is no giant ice-skating rink with a big Christmas tree in the middle in Santiago, Chile at Christmas time. It’s summertime here, and while you will find some sweaty, bearded “viejitos pascueros” (Santa Clauses) and two large, public Christmas trees, one at Estación Central, and the other at the Plaza de Armas, Christmas may not feel exactly like it does at home.
First of all, it’s quite warm out. The Christmas Eve toast is done with champagne with pineapple ice cream in it, because people are looking for something refreshing after all that sun. They do have a traditional dessert snack that’s not that far off from fruitcake, with the difference being that everyone buys it, loves it, compares it and serves it, if you’re invited to any social event surrounding this time of year. It’s a round brown cake, spiced with cinnamon and cloves and studded with dried fruit. You can find it in any supermarket or bakery, under the name “Pan de Pascua” (Christmas bread).
Another drink to bring out Christmas cheer in Chile is colo de mono, which literally means “monkey’s tail.” It’s a milky alcoholic beverage made of instant coffee, milk or cream, some spices and aguardiente, or white rum. It doesn’t taste dissimilar to a White Russian, and everyone’s mother has her own recipe, though you can also get it at some of the traditional downtown meat-and-sandwich shops, including a few on the pedestrian walkway, Huerfanos, or at the supermarket, pre-made and next to the premixed pisco sour.
If you happen to be in Santiago around the end of November, the department store Paris puts on a parade on the Alameda (Avenida Libertador Bernardo O’Higgins) near their storefront downtown, with floats and balloon cartoon characters.
Christmas is mainly a family affair here, and you’ll smell the barbequeing meat on every street corner, as families prepare for a giant dinner. Unlike in the United States, where for most people, Christmas Eve is the most important family-get-together, in Chile, December 25th is the big day, and nearly all commerce is closed. Transportation is running, but long-distance bus tickets and flights sell out, so it’s a good idea to buy ahead of time, especially on years when Christmas falls near a weekend.
It’s the perfect time to rent a cabin in the north or south, or an apartment on the beach, because almost no one uses their vacation homes on Christmas, preferring to stick close to grandma’s. Because some traditions truly are universal. And if you’re just itching to get out of the city and into nature, the refreshing breezes to the east of the city around Christmastime are perhaps best enjoyed on mountain horseback tour.
- Eileen Smith