Christmas in Buenos Aires can feel strange for the uninitiated. Many porteños leave town to visit family, the holiday’s religious roots remain dominant over its more tinsel-y incarnations, and seasons’ greetings can barely be heard over the phrase: “it’s not the heat, it’s the humidity!”
If you hail from a country that sees Christmas as a drunken, consumerist free-for-all, a glowing beacon of hope in a dark and freezing winter, December can feel down right un-festive in Argentina’s capital.
For those who are unsure of what to do when confronted with the city’s unique mix of European tradition and South American heat, here’s our guide to getting the best out of a Buenos Aires Christmas.
Get into the holiday spirit with Recoleta’s ninth annual Christmas Fair. Over 80 vendors will be selling everything from clothes and jewellery to wine and charcuterie. Running throughout this coming weekend, it’s a chance to buy all your gifts in one place. You lazy thing.
(18th – 20th December, 3.30pm – 8.30pm; Ayacucho 1571)
Argentina is one of the only countries in Latin America where it’s common for kids to write letters to Santa Claus. So bring your appropriately aged children down to Dot Baires Shopping, Alto Palermo, Abasto Shopping or Alto Avellaneda, all of which offer the chance to share your wishlist and get a photo with St Nick. Only one of these four can be the real Santa so hit all of them to be safe.
Opening hours will be extended at the city’s shopping centres over the next week, and the night of the 23rd means ‘Noche Shopping’, when doors stay open till 4am and nocturnal shoppers will have access to surprise discounts.
In Argentina Christmas is celebrated on the night of the 24th December, known as Nochebuena. Christmas Eve Mass is the key event for many people, but since I don’t know any good churches, let’s focus on the food.
The vast majority of people spend Nochebuena dining at home with their loved ones, so try to befriend someone with a big kitchen in the next week. Some Argentines favour either pork or turkey as their Christmas meal, so these should be on offer in shops (try Granja Converso or Piaf for turkey). Asados are also popular on both 24th and 25th. But the traditional feast is all about the cold sides:
Vitel Toné: The most iconic food on the Argentine Christmas table has Italian roots and roughly translates as ‘Tuna-y beef’! Thinly sliced beef is topped with a sauce made of tuna, egg yolk, mayonnaise and anchovies. Go oooon, try it.
Arrollados and Piononos (Roulade): These consist of a layer of meat or pastry rolled into a spiral around a filling which can be savoury or sweet. Really, it’s anything you want it to be. As long as it’s rolled.
Ensalada Rusa: This healthiest of salads consists mainly of potatoes, carrots, mayonnaise and eggs.
Pan Dulce: Very similar in form to Italian Panetonne, this sweet, cake-y bread is full of fruits and nuts. It’s the classic Christmas dessert and you’ve probably seen it popping up in supermarkets over the last few weeks.
If you don’t have much family here, or if your kitchen is too small to cook in, you may have to venture out for your Christmas Eve dinner. Trouble is, the majority of restaurants are closed on the 24th and those that are open offer expensive set menus, which need to be booked in advance. The following restaurants will welcome you, for a hefty fee. At least prices are discounted for kids and they all include wine (not for the kids).
Garbis: $590; Monroe 1799, Belgrano
This is not exactly traditional Christmas dinner but hey, it’s 35 degrees outside and Comida Arabe sounds pretty good right now. Hummus, Taboulé and Lamb galore!
Meliá Buenos Aires: $1.350; Reconquista 945, Microcentro
The hotel’s plush Salón Tirso de Molina room will provide a luxurious setting for a buffet style dinner. Make your money back by picking the expensive foods.
La Cabrera Norte: $1,600; José Antonio Cabrera 5127, Palermo Soho
Chefs at La Cabrera are putting on a large spread, including classic Argentine starters, an impressive array of meats and an alluring dessert tasting menu, all accompanied by live music
UCO: $2,000; Fierro Hotel; Soler 5862, Palermo Hollywood
UCO’s ethos privileges cooking from scratch with high quality ingredients . For Nochebuena they’re preparing18-hour slow cooked Patagonian Lamb and Classic Ceviche, among other treats.
Duhau Restaurant: $4,000; Park Hyatt Hotel, Av. Alvear 1661, Recoleta
Very, very fancy. Or at least it better be for the price of a month’s rent. Chef Federico Ferrari will be pulling out all the stops for a sophisticated menu, complimented bycarollers in the restaurant garden and a visit from Santa Claus.
Another option for those who don’t want to stay in is a Tango Show, with many big dance companies, including Madero Tango and Ventana Tango, offering to entertain as well as feed you. Of course, prices are designed for tourists and come in at around US$200.
Porteño parents don’t bother to send their kids to bed in time for Santa Claus to come because fireworks would wake them up anyway. At midnight, hundreds of individuals mount displays, resulting in a violently colourful sky. Many people head up to roofs or down to parks after dinner to take in the view.
A midnight toast is a nice way to prepare yourself for New Year’s Eve a week later. Sparkling wine and champagne are of course classic choices but the heat makes cider very tempting too.
After dinner drinks go on till 3am in many a home. However, if you’re feeling particularly high on Christmas cheer, some clubs and bars are planning Nochebuena after parties. Try Club Niceto.
The 25th December is a rather relaxed time in Argentina, resembling Boxing Day in the UK or New Years day in many European countries and the US. Go for a walk in a park, nurse your inevitable hangover, and hope that you’ve bought enough alfajores and wine as presents.