Among the main differences with the Northern Hemisphere, the holiday season in the southern hemisphere is celebrated in the summer heat. Here, a guide to meals, traditions and idiosyncrasies of the festivities in Argentina.
In Argentina, temperatures usually rise above 30 degrees in December (86°F). Despite this, Christmas dinner is not usually a light meal. Quite the contrary: the more, the better, and on the next day you can see why: leftovers will get the Instagram treatment of a Michelin restaurant dish on Christmas lunchtime.
The great banquet begins with several “starters” before the main course. On an Argentine table you will almost certainly find fresh tomatoes and deviled eggs. Also, something called Pionono, a kind of sweet dough roll with a savory filling, such as tuna and mayonnaise or ham and cheese.
Another classic dish that is a must on any Argentine Christmas table is Vitel Tone, an Italian recipe of cold meat cut in slices with a cold tuna and anchovy sauce. It is served before the main course, usually accompanied by a “Russian salad” of potatoes, carrots, peas and boiled eggs with mayonnaise and parsley. These dishes are reserved almost exclusively for Christmas, and younger people in particular enjoy them with a kind of retro irony.
Roast suckling pig with a salad garnish is a popular main course. This is part of a Catalan tradition brought to Argentina by Spanish immigrants. Bolder souls, braving the heat, will resort to the Argentine staple, an asado. Favored desserts include fruit salad or ice cream.
At midnight, after a toast of champagne or, more likely, sweet cider in a champagne bottle (sidra), Argentines eat pan dulce, a version of Italian panettone, as well as peanuts dipped in chocolate and garrapiñada (caramelized peanuts).
Christmas is a late night show
Why wait until Christmas morning to find out what Santa Claus has brought you, when you can do it as soon as the clock strikes midnight?
Whether it’s the festive spirit or the hardcore Catholic desire to celebrate the “exact” time of Jesus’ birth, in Argentina –and most of South America– people open their presents right after the twelve o’clock toast.
We sometimes celebrate midnight with fireworks, too, although growing awareness of how this affects people with autism, pets, and others means this particular tradition is falling by the wayside.
Argentina’s late-night Christmas is a complex logistical effort if you want to keep your children believing in Santa Claus, and his illogical and magical way of delivering presents to your home. The presents must be at the foot of the Christmas tree at midnight, but not before, because Santa is not working the day shift on December 24. So, that’s when midnight fireworks come in handy: ‘kids, let’s go out and see the fireworks’ is usually a code for a designated someone to quickly put the previously hidden presents beneath the tree. Santa just swept by and dropped the presents, you missed him, kids!
Once the presents are all distributed and opened the party truly begins. WhatsApp messages will start to swamp phones. Addresses of incipient parties start to pour in, and the logistical problem is what parties to hit and how to get there, on a night where taxis are scarce, buses take forever, and driving is not the safest because of the cider and champagne toasts.
This is why in Argentina, the best Christmas present you can open in the morning is waking up with the lightest hangover possible.
Gifts and Secret Santa
As Christmas celebrations tend to be very crowded, with several generations of a family taking part, the trees are filled with packages with names that are given one by one to each person. Parents feign surprise at their kids’ gifts: after all, it was not them who brought the presents, but Papa Noel.
How many presents do you need to buy? Usually, people bring gifts for their family members, although sometimes they are also brought for other people who are at the Christmas dinner, especially the hosts.
But there is another option: instead of buying gifts for everyone, you can play Secret Santa, or, as it is called in Argentina, Amigo Invisible – the Invisible Friend. Before Christmas, each person in a group buys a present for just one other person, designated by drawing names from a hat. There are rules: there is a set budget for the gift and who, exactly, your present came from is a secret.
They can, however, leave clues. Who wins? If the person who received the gift guesses who gave it to them, they win. But if they don’t, the person who gave the gift wins.
These late festivities mean that, unlike in countries that celebrate on December 25, sleeping late is common. Now comes the final stretch of the year and the preparations for another great night of festivities: New Year’s Eve!