What is Christmas like in Buenos Aires? With fireworks, warm temperatures, calorie-laden food, and dancing until dawn, Navidad in Buenos Aires is a party that is literally not for the faint of heart.
It may be Christmas but It’s Hot as Hades!
Christmas falls in summer in the southern hemisphere, so traditions such as Santa Claus in full regalia, real pine trees and Christmas stories around the fire do not translate temperature-wise, making Christmas a mash-up of European traditions and Latin American summertime partying with family, friends and feasting.
The main day of celebration in Argentina is on Christmas Eve and the evening plays out in a manner oddly similar to New Year’s Eve in other predominately Christian countries.
Argentine Christmas: Religion vs Commercialism
The Christmas season is nicely contained by specific religious dates in Argentina. It starts on the Fiesta de la Virgen (Day of the Immaculate Conception) on December 8th, a Catholic holiday revering Mary. On this day families put out a nativity scene, a faux Christmas tree and string up lights and decorations.
Argentines are mainly Roman Catholics but most celebrate Christmas in a secular manner. Church bells ring at midnight on Christmas, but in urban areas not many people attend midnight Mass. Those who want to go to Mass, but not miss the toast at midnight head to church earlier in the day. The best place to attend midnight mass in Buenos Aires is the Catedral Metropolitana, where former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio (aka Pope Francis) led mass for many years until being chosen as the new pontiff.
Most people celebrate at home with friends and family, but those with no talent or time to cook may go to one of the many restaurants that offer a fixed-price menu on Christmas Eve. Argentines will celebrate at any cost and restaurants take full advantage – eating out on Christmas Eve comes at a premium.
Those planning to dine out will want to make reservations in advance. Attire at your average Christmas party or restaurant in Palermo on Christmas Eve is semi-formal, with women donning summer dresses and men wearing a button up shirt, and weather permitting, a sport coat.
Papá Noel (aka Santa Claus) & Gifts
Unlike in many other South American countries, children in Argentina do write cards to Santa Claus. The range and money spent on gifts depends on the family but is usually modest compared to more consumer-oriented nations.
Argentina being a nocturnal country, no one bothers to send children to bed with threats that Santa won’t come if they don’t — instead they find a way to distract them, at which point Mr. and Mrs. Claus place gifts under the tree.
The money spent on gifts depends on the socio-economic level of the family, the rate of inflation and the state of the nation. Most of the gift giving is focused on younger children. Families with older kids often exchange one gift with each member of the family.
Purchasing gifts for friends is optional, although bringing food or drinks to share at gatherings is a common courtesy. An exception on the gift front are small token gifts — girlfriends sometimes present pink underwear as a gift to single gal-pals for good luck in finding love in the New Year.
Everyone toasts Merry Christmas at midnight on Nochebuena,(Christmas Eve) and gifts are opened afterward.
Christmas in Argentina, and especially Buenos Aires, most resembles New Year’s when midnight strikes, everyone toasts and the skies alight with fireworks. Plan to be somewhere secure and strategic at this hour to watch the fireworks.
In some neighborhoods the streets can resemble a war zone around midnight, with firecrackers popping everywhere, sirens blaring, a few stragglers on the sidewalk and dogs running panicked.
In Buenos Aires, the adventurous may make their way to the Obelisco or a park to watch the fireworks display.
Another classic — if slightly dangerous tradition — is to launch paper globes with candles in the air. Due to the fire hazard, this is seen less in Buenos Aires’ neighborhoods and more in other areas of the country.
In recent years there has been a backlash against fireworks of any kind, especially after a polar bear died at the Palermo Zoo in 2012 due to heat combined with the stress of the exploding skies. Thankfully, partly in response the to Polar Bear’s death, the zoo has been converted to an Eco Park. Also, as the headlines report at the end of every year, there are a few hundred injuries across the country caused by pyrotechnics, so their unsupervised use is waning.
Those who are firework-adverse may want to consider going to more rural parts of the country, such as Patagonia, where they have been banned for many years.
Christmas Eve Transportation Tips
It is important for visitors to know that in Buenos Aires there is little to no public transportation between the hours of 9 p.m. until at least 3 a.m. Those who need to get to a destination by bus or taxi, need to remember to travel outside these hours or risk getting stranded.
It is good idea to stay off the roads during the party hours anyway — drunk driving is still a big problem in Argentina, and there are few police patrolling the streets on Christmas.
The Christmas Eve After Party
Private Christmas Eve parties in Buenos Aires stretch until at least 3 a.m., even in the most conservative of homes. Bars and clubs start to open at around 2-3 a.m. for Christmas Eve after-parties.
On Christmas Day some are nursing hangovers or suffering sleep deprivation. The day resembles New Year’s Day in other countries, with family and friends going around to visit each other while recovering from the night before.
If you love the loud ‘4th of July-style’ Christmas in Argentina, you can look forward to doing it all over again one week later, on New Year’s Eve.
The Day of Kings on January 6 marks the official end of the Christmas season in Argentina.