If you’re studying Spanish or volunteering in Cusco and decided to stay here for this upcoming Christmas, don’t feel glum about missing out on family traditions back home. Cusco offers an array of exciting new traditions to explore and adopt as your own.
One of these are the Christmas markets that are held in nearly every plaza in the city. The most famous is the Santurantikuy Christmas market held in Plaza de Armas, the main square in the center of Cusco, for the whole day of December 24th. While this market is a must for all visitors to Cusco for the Christmas season, we also recommend that you head out before Christmas Eve and checkout some other Christmas markets that start before hand.
For the week before Christmas in Tupac Amaru Plaza, just off Av. de la Cultura before you hit the University, you’ll find hundreds of booths and tents selling all sorts of things from Christmas gifts to decorations for your nacimiento, or Nativity Scene. Here in Cusco, decorating your family nacimiento is akin to the Western tradition of decorating a Christmas tree. Rather than dragging a real pine-tree into the house and arming it in glowing lights, Peruvian families gather together to create a nacimiento. They either buy or build a small stable or structure, and fill it with grass and other natural items that they buy from women from the countryside in the Christmas markets. These markets also sell numerous ceramic figurines of farm animals, the holy family, the three wise kings and more, meant to adorn the nacimiento. The culminating tradition of creating a nativity scene, though, is leaving out the figure of baby Jesus until Christmas Day. Like New Years Eve, families stay up together on Christmas Eve and herald in the birth of Jesus with a special dinner and toast. When the clock strikes 12 midnight, they ceremoniously pronounce Jesus’s birth by finally placing his tiny figure in their nacimiento.
At the Tupac Amaru Christmas market you can buy all the things you could possibly need for your nacimiento and more. Hundreds of booths present thousands of tiny ceramic figurines. In true Cusco style, llamas, alpacas and guinea pigs are all available to include in your nacimiento along with the more typical cows, donkeys, and sheep. Many different types of grasses are on display, sometimes as pieces of turf cut from the ground to lay whole on the floor of your nativity scene. Small trees and other shrubs are available, as well as an array of pinecones, berries, branches, and flowers. The variety of natural materials creates a beautiful path of grays, browns, and soft colors through the market center.
The contrast between the nacimiento grasses section and the booths of plastic presents and decorations is jarring. Florescent blinking lights and brightly colored plastic do-dads line the stalls, along with small fake christmas trees. The Tupac Amaru Christmas market has a more daily-life, commercial feel about it with Peruvian families strolling through perusing their options. Mixed in with the booths of decorations are the stands selling gifts. Stuffed animals, plastic toys, super hero figurines, knitted items, shoes, jewelry, chocolate, wine, and the inevitable fruit cake which here in Cusco is a tradition that hasn’t been pushed into the realm of jokes and bad-taste.
If you want to experience a true Cusco Christmas tradition that has been alive for hundreds of years, head to Plaza de Armas on Christmas Eve for the Santurantikuy Christmas market. To get a taste of what modern-day Christmas shopping is like for a typical Peruvian family, head to Tupac Amaru plaza for their Christmas market. The contrast, though extreme in this example, is perhaps akin to going to your local church for their traditional craft fair, or heading to a big box store. Both present one aspect of the Christmas season, and for a traveler in a foreign country, it is worth seeing all sides of life.