Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Eating Chilean Christmas

Christmas in Chile--Pascua de Navidad, or simply Pascua[1]—falls in early summer, four days after the summer solstice, the longest day of the year.  Today it is celebrated with the familiar German-British-American-Global Christmas complex of decorations, gifts, trees, carols, Santa Claus (here El Viejito Pascuero, Little Old Man Christmas), decorated cookies and even roast turkey.

But it was not always so…..

Christmas Eve on La Cañada [Santiago, circa 1870]

It is eight o’clock in the evening.  La Cañada [today’s Alameda] has the happy appearance of an immense fair. For a distance of at least three miles, from the upper Convent of Carmen on the east to the train station on the west seethes a compact audience of all social classes and ranks. In all the cross streets of this great avenue extends a belt of stalls, booths, food stands, and shelters that would make the curious think the whole population had fled their houses because of some earthquake or similar calamity and had chosen that location for their stores.  In each booth a flag flutters in the wind; the national tricolor is always obligatory to protect the harp and the guitar whose harmonies resonate from all quarters.  Foods of all types, liquors, fruits, little empanadas, sweets, flowers, bunches of sweet basil, little ceramics made by the nuns, horchata with maliciia [a sweet drink with brandy], games, and all kinds of appetizing inventions for the Chileans’ gluttonous bulletproof stomachs, make up the commercial vocabulary of Christmas Eve.[2]

Valparaiso had a similar celebration, but US Navy Leutenant J.M. Gilliss, there in 1850 as part of a US Naval Astronomical Expedition, was evidently a bit disappointed:

  What he found was similar to the fair in Santiago, some of it a bit unrefined for his Anglo Saxon sensibilities:

Special Christmas food and drinks?  None are mentioned.  Chilean historian Daniel Palma’s article on Santiago food and drink at the end of the 19th century, says:  “The [Christmas] kitchen addresses itself to the typical dishes such as empanadas, arrolladas and casuelas [turnovers, pork rolls, and boiled dinners], all accompanied by chicha [young wine or cider] especially prepared for the occasion.”  Among the wealthy, Noche Buena picnic dinners at the fair were “succulent and primitive banquets, alternating between cold cuts of turkey and roast lambs, with sparkling chicha, cups of sweet hot punch, legendary milk punch, and water punch with ices.”[3]

20th Century

If Lieutenant Gilliss was disappointed by 19th century Chilean Christmas, he would have been happier a few years later, as the familiar Global Christmas complex was beginning to arrive.  German immigration in the second half of the 19th century brought Christmas trees, Christmas cakes and decorations, if only to the immigrant communities and Santa seems to have arrived early in the new century.

Cris Salazar’s blog on Santiago’s history, Urbatorium, chronicles Santa’s history and arrival in Chile.   Referring to the picture at left, in which Santa is carrying what appears to be a Christmas tree, Chris writes:

A "Viejo Pascuero" in the publicity of the Bazar Alemán Krass [downtown Santiago’s premier toy store], published in the capital press in 1910.  It is one of the oldest St. Nicolases in Chilean documents and shows that this persona was already in Chile, probably due to German influence.”

The Christmas tree, “el pino” also appears in the early 20th century.  This illustration is from a 1931 Chilean cookbook, Hermanita Hormiga [4] (Little Sister Ant).

But “El pino” didn’t arrive at my wife’s home until 1962, remembered because it was also the year of the family’s first TV, bought especially for the 1962 World Cup, hosted by Chile.  Today it is a tradition, and comes out every year in early December.  It is plastic of course; natural Christmas trees aren’t part of Santiago’s 85° F. holiday season.

German immigration also seems to have brought pan de Pascua, holiday fruit cake, evidently descended from the German Christstollen.  It is lighter than the traditional English or American fruit cake and is THE essential food for holiday celebrations.  It is of course, available in supermarkets and bakeries, and those seem to be the source for most families. 

To assist Santiagueños in making this purchase, El Mercurio, Chile’s major newspaper, held a pan de Pascua tasting in 2008.  What was the standard?

What is a good Pan de Pascua? Easy.  It has a dark dough, dense and humid; adorned with nuts (walnuts and almonds, hopefully toasted), dry fruit (raisins, hopefully soaked), and candied fruit (hopefully natural) of good quality and quantity; seasoned with sweet spices (cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, anise, ginger, vanilla, honey) and liquor (rum or cognac).[5]


The winner?  Supermarket Lider’s Ideal brand, at about $5 US for 2 lb. loaf.

But if you’d like to make you own, here is a recipe in English.  And to meet El Mercurio’s ideal, soak the raisins in rum first and add ginger.

To accompany your pan de Pascua, the essential beverage is Cola de Mono, literally “monkey’s tail,” a descendant of the 19th century milk punch.  Various stories explain the drink’s origins and name, but the most cogent is that:
In a party held by an elderly society lady attended by ex-President Pedro Mott, it began to rain torrentially. Then when Don Pedro decided to retire he asked for the return of his Colt pistol, which he had given one of his friends to hold.  As none of them wanted the president to be exposed to such a ferocious downpour, they hid his pistol. The party continued at a fast pace, until the wines and liquors were gone, but someone discovered an enormous pitcher of coffee with milk and improvised.  As he tried to give this flavorful find a bit of a mischievous touch, he added aguardiente [brandy] and sugar, improvising a drink that was appreciated by all.  Such a great discovery had to be baptized, and what better than to call it the “Colt of Montt,” from which the now known “Cola de Mono” was easily derived. [6] 
Cola de mono is now available pre-made, but who knows how it tastes?  This is my wife’s recipe:

1.  Bring three liters of milk (skim or whole as you wish) to a boil, being careful that it does not burn on the bottom, and cool in the refrigerator.

2.  Then mix 1 cup water with 1½ cups sugar, cloves, cinnamon sticks, zest from two lemons, and a teaspoon of vanilla extract.  Bring to a boil and then simmer briefly so that all the sugar is dissolved and the spices have infused the liquid.  Then cool and strain.

3.  Mix the cold milk and cold sugar mixture, add Nescafé instant coffee (Chile’s coffee of choice) to taste and 1½  lt. of aguardiente. Serve well chilled. The final product should look like this:

Alejandra’s Cola de Mono

What else happens on Chilean Christmas?  In our house, my wife’s daughters, sons-in-law and granddaughters arrive at around dark, 8:30 or 9:00 PM.  Pan de Pascua, Christmas cookies, chips, olives, nuts and assorted nibbles are out for pre-dinner snacks and Cola de mono and pisco sours are offered to the grownups. Dinner is at 10:00 or 11:00, served buffet style with a cold main dish (salmon, turkey breast, ham, etc.) and salads. Champaign (demi-sec) is opened at midnight and served over pineapple sherbet, and Christmas abrazos (hugs) and kisses abound.  And then we surround the tree and delve into the multitude of presents.  More relatives arrive after midnight, bringing gifts and staying for cola de mono and pan de Pascua, but things quiet down by two or three AM and it’s off to bed.  Christmas day is simply “the day after,” with no special events other than recovery.

Here’s another Chilean family’s tradition, from the web site Navidad Latina

Christmas Chilean Style
 by Maria Jesús Riveros Miño.
I am a heart felt Chilean and can say that for Chileans the most significant and awaited holiday is Christmas, along with the New Year.  In the central region Christmas begins in early December when the Christmas advertisements come out for the fabulous toys that technology surprises us with daily; at this moment we see true consumerism, just like the rest of the world, but it all ends on the 24th at 6:00.  Many people go to the “Mass of the Rooster” (celebrating the birth of Christ).  Many people do religious things, while others just spend the time peacefully with their families.  At about 10:00 PM they sit down at the table and enjoy the delicious Christmas supper that is usually turkey or chicken stuffed with corn.  The campaign glasses ring and we listen to the Christmas Eve toasts.  As midnight approaches we take the children for a walk while “The VIEJITO PASCUERO arrives” as we call Santa Claus or Father Christmas. Earlier the children would have been asleep and would have opened their presents on the 25th, but the way children are now, they have no problem staying up until midnight.  When they come back to their house after their walk, they find all the presents and it is time to open them, but first they are dedicated to the baby Jesus.  Some sing Christmas carols, others go out in the street to play with their bicycles, skates or other toys, others go to discothèques or just go to sleep to await the new day.  Don’t forget that for us Christmas is in summer and everyone goes outside happily to play with their presents until the time got to bed to sleep as late as they want.
If turkey is on the menu, as it seems to be in many Chilean households, it will probably be stuffed with a meat-fruit mixture, or with corn stuffing.  Oddly, I could not find a Chilean recipe for corn stuffing (perhaps a kind reader will supply one) but here is a recipe for:

100 gm. ham
125 gm. pork loin
3 apples
125 gm. prunes
125 gm. chestnuts, cooked and peeled
100 gm. sultana raisins
125 grams lard
1 glass white wine
Thyme, bay leaf, oregano, parsley
A pinch of cinnamon
Salt and pepper

Soak the raisins and prunes.  Peel the apples and cut into slices, mince the pork lion and the ham.  Melt the lard in a skillet and sauté the pork loin and ham, add the raisins and prunes, apples, chestnuts, cinnamon, herbs, salt and pepper and stir to mix.  Add the wine and boil until it has evaporated.  Allow to cool and stuff turkey with mixture. 

And 21st Century Chilean Christmas?

 “El Marketing” suggests that it will be more global, less Chilean, and expensive, if this ad for “The Perfect Present” from El Mecurio’s Saturday magazine (11 Dec., 2010, p. 30) is any indication: 

“What to buy for a foodie? And a runner? A techie?”



 The suggestions, top to bottom, left to right are: Secret of the Union Hams,” $9.30 US/100 grams; Pan de Pascua, $10.55; an automatic coffee maker, described as “Super cool,” $430; Ceramic knives, called “the ultimate in style," $80 each; a mortar and pestle, $24; and Cook with Jaime cookbook (in English), $108.


Feliz Navidad Chilena

Plaza de Armas, Santiago, 2005   Photo:  Steve Davis

[1] “Pascua” is usually translated as “Easter” and in most of the Spanish speaking world that is what it refers to, but in Chile it refers to both events associated with both the birth and death of Jesus.  In Chile Easter is Pascua de Resurrección”
[2] Tornero, Recaredo S. 1872. Chile Ilustrado. Valparaiso: Librerias I Ajencias del Mercurio.  On line at All translations mine unless otherwise noted.
[3] Palma Alvarado, Daniel. 2004 De apetitos y de cañas. El consumo de alimentos y bebidas en Santiago a fines del siglo XIX. P. 394.  Historia No 37, Vol. II, julio-diciembre 2004: 391-417 On line at
[4] Burnet, Marta.  1931.  La Hermanita Hormiga: Tratado de arte culinario. Santiago: Editorial Nascimento. P 324. On line at
[5] Lineros, Locío.  2008. Cata de Pan de Pascua 2008. El Mercurio. (Revista) Wikén.  Dec 12, 2008. on line at{17bfc934-c11c-4f2b-abf1-f6bd62b26cb2}
[6] Cocinando en Navidad.  On line at


  1. Todo muy cierto Jim, en casa de mis abuelos la celebración siempre ha sido tal cual, pero con pino de verdad cortado del patio!
    Creo que la juguetería que haces referencia es Otto Krauss, muy muy clásica.

  2. !Un pino de verdad! Nunca he visto en Santiago.

  3. I was in Santiago myself one Christmas, about 13 years ago, and I don't remember any Christmas trees. If they were there, they were very small.

  4. They're here now! Your comment inspired me to add a photo: see the last section of this post.


  5. I'm from Santiago and my mum never let us have plastic trees, in the suburbs there use to be places where you could buy real, nicely smelly pinos. I haven't been in Chile for Christmas in a few years, but I'm sure you can fin them



  6. Thanks Sebasitan, I stand corrected. But I'm afraid that in our house "el pino de plastico" is now a tradition. (And how do you keep a real tree from shedding all its needles at 85 F.?)


  7. Well that was always an issue once you take it out of the house, but at least it doesn't go brown in the month you have it there, we also always installed in a bucket with soil which even if won't avoid the imminent dead, will at least delay it.

    I've been spending last Xmas in Germany and the US but I miss a warm Christmas going out late in the night with friends after dinner and sharing with the family.



Sorry, no more anonymous posts. I was getting too much spam. Email me (see my profile) if you would like to comment and have no account. Jim