The delivery of children’s Christmas gifts in Latin America is competitive.
In some places, the three wise men, known as los Reyes Magos, have the market cornered in a continuation of Spanish tradition. Santa Claus, aka Papá Noel, has made big inroads as well in places like Mexico and Peru with his American red suit.
But in many Latin American homes, including in Colombia, Costa Rica and Bolivia, the pile of presents that magically appears Christmas Eve comes from the infant boy, known as Niño Jesús.
Choosing the gift bearer is no child’s matter. Indeed, the battles over which fantastical character is assigned to the task represent nationalist pushback to the waves of outside influences that have washed over the region, from the vestiges of Spanish imperialism to American consumerism. After all, the prize at stake, the next generation’s buy-in to a particular worldview, is a big one.
A century-old practice
Such fights are not exclusive to Latin America. Indeed, German Protestants came up with the Christkind, or Christ child, during Reformation to sideline St. Nicholas, who represented Catholicism, said Tara Moore, author of “Christmas: The Sacred to Santa.” More recently, German Catholics have launched a campaign (German) to replace Santa Claus, or Weihnachtsmann—literally Christmas man—in German, with St. Nicholas.
Sometime in 1980s or 1990s, the gift-giving task in Spain’s Basque country was assigned to a charcoal maker known as Olentzero (Spanish), a traditional figure with more local ties than the three wise men or Baby Jesus.
But perhaps because of its tumultuous history, Latin America has a particularly colorful cast of gift-giving characters. One Mexican president, for example, tried replacing Santa Claus with Quetzacoátl, the pre-Hispanic plumed serpent god, during a particularly nationalistic period in the 1930s. The concept did not take.
In a 1996 essay titled “Jingle Bells or Ropopompóm” after the names of the famous American song and a traditional Spanish villancico, or carol, Peruvian author Fernando Iwasaki Cauti lays out the transition from one gift bearer to another in Peru.
Like other former Spanish colonies, Peru had practiced the tradition of the three kings.
But in the midst of war with Spain, a Peruvian general banned it in the late 1800s, Iwasaki Cauti writes. The kings were replaced in their present-delivery duties by El Niño or the boy, in reference to Baby Jesus. It was around that same time that Peruvian sailors identified a warm-water ocean current that hits around Christmas, which is now associated with broader meteorological conditions that cause devastating floods and drought around the world. They dubbed it “El Niño.”
“I’m sure that if that phenomenon had been baptized in the second half of the 20th century, it would have been called ‘Peruvian current of Papá Noel,'” writes Iwasaki Cauti. By that time, the jolly red figure had arrived in Peru via an American department store chain and had rapidly spread.
There were subsequent attempts to unseat Santa Claus. In the 1970s, the country’s military dictatorship vowed to oust the “perverse agent of Yankee imperialism” and sought to replace him with el Niño Manuelito, a poncho-clad version of el niño who delivered locally made toys. That didn’t interrupt Papá Noel’s fancy deliveries to children with family who traveled abroad, but it did frustrate those in households visited by Manuelito. So the government came up with Taita Noel, an Andean version of the original. After that didn’t work, authorities finally admitted the existence of Santa, but explained he had become a Peruvian citizen and proudly wore the colors of his new country’s flag, red and white, per the author.
The spirit of Christmas
Santa Claus has one advantage that Baby Jesus doesn’t: a fantastical, yet feasible backstory. It explains exactly where the toys come from and how they are delivered.
The logistics behind Baby Jesus’s present giving are hazier. One child told Colombian newspaper El Tiempo (Spanish) that El Niño has a magic helicopter; another, that he owns the stores and buys the toys there. In another version, God materializes the gifts through magic and outsources the delivery to Santa—Baby Jesus is asleep at that time and there’s no ladder from heaven to Earth, so God can’t bring them.
Still, a collection of polls, taken in different countries, at different times, show he still has currency among the region’s children. (The one for Colombia was done among 877 readers by newspaper Vanguardia Liberal in 2013; the Mexico and Costa Rica polls were conducted by TNS and Unimer respectively in 2015; the sample size was not immediately available.)
Every year around the holidays, el niño’s advocates make their case in newspaper columns and Catholic websites (Spanish.) Santa Claus, they argue, represents un-Christian consumerism; Baby Jesus, the true spirit of Christmas.
Such distinctions are lost for many who see the holiday season as a universal opportunity to celebrate. In many places, representations of Santa Claus and Jesus mingle freely. In one very literal example of this, a Quito, Ecuador store carries baby-Jesus-sized Papá Noel outfits (Spanish) for families wanting to clad their niño figure in festive red for his birthday. A particularly suitable adaptation for a region with multi-layered Christmas traditions.