Not just ‘Jingle Bells:’ Listen to these Christmas songs from Latin America

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What is known today as Latin America is a very diverse region in terms of languages, cultures, peoples, and music, including Christmas songs. Here we selected eleven songs that you can't miss for Christmas and New Year's Eve festivities.

Some are for dancing, others for reminiscing, and yet others include political demands (and sometimes it's all three at once). Some come from the Anglo-Saxon world, and others reflect local cultures. Some showcase Catholic sentiments and many are the product of European colonization, globalization, and syncretism.

Listen to Global Voices’ Christmas playlist with songs from Mexico, Cuba, El Salvador, Colombia, Ecuador, Venezuela, Bolivia, Peru, and Brazil.

El Año Viejo – Tony Camargo

In Mexico, families often come together at Christmas to remember the moments when families were more united and without empty seats at the tables during the Christmas dinner. That's why, in order to pay respect to absent relatives, we play the music they liked during the Christmas holidays. Performers such as Tony Camargo and Luis Miguel are among the most listened to singers in Mexico during festivities; the song “El Año Viejo” is iconic for its lyrics and rhythm, and also reveals the cultural union of Latin Americans, since the author is Colombian.

En la Nochebuena – La Sonora Matancera

During the 1950s, the group La Sonora Matancera became very popular in Cuba. Among the most outstanding and notorious voices of the group were the singer Celia Cruz and her husband, trumpeter Pedro Knight.

At that time, Christmas was celebrated in Cuba as in most of the countries of the Western Hemisphere where Christian sentiments were deeply rooted in the population. With the arrival of the Cuban Revolution and communism, state atheism was imposed and traditions such as Christmas were prohibited.

It would not be until 1998 with the visit of Pope John Paul II to Cuba that Christmas celebrations resumed, but even in the strongest decades of communism on the island, the vast majority of Cubans listened to those unforgettable Christmas songs discreetly. Families enjoy the typical roast suckling pig at the end of the year, seduced by the melodious Cuban sounds.

La Víspera de Año Nuevo – Los 50 de Joselito

The vallenato, Colombia's native musical genre that blends European, Indigenous, and African influences, enlivens every Colombian gathering, and the holiday season is no exception. Guillermo Buitrago, one of the pioneers of its popularization, was the creator of this immortal tune: La Víspera de Año Nuevo (New Year's Eve).

Like many songs, it tells the story of forbidden love, but in this special case, it is about a couple of young lovers who decide to escape from their families to celebrate New Year's Eve together. The song included in this list is the version of Los 50 de Joselito, an orchestra that was born 23 years ago to rescue the vallenato music of the '50s, and which every December, without fail, releases a new version to make Colombians dance no matter where they are in the world.

La Grey Zuliana – Ricardo Aguirre

La Grey Zuliana is one of the hymns of the gaita zuliana, a style of Venezuelan music named after the state where it comes from and quintessential Christmas music. The song speaks of the devotion to the Virgin of Chiquinquirá and the struggle of the people of the state of Zulia for the state to be recognized and taken into account by national politicians.

Although the gaita zuliana was born in northern Venezuela, in the state of Zulia, its genre became popular throughout the country and has been declared a heritage of cultural and artistic interest. Some consider that the first gaita music from around 1660 was religious; others consider that the beginning of the gaita was the protest music of the early 19th century. However, it was not until 1960 that the first record was commercialized in Venezuela with the collaboration of Ramón Bracho Lozano and José Mavárez.

Burrito sabanero – Marco Pastor Estelles

The soundtrack of a Bolivian Christmas includes cumbia carols and Anglo-Saxon music. It is common in supermarkets to hear the catchy sounds of deep-voiced, English Jingle Bells songs. This contrasts with the high-pitched voice of the cumbia-like versions in Spanish of Mi Burrito Sabanero, a Venezuelan carol played on public transport.

Both songs have been included in the Navidad Camba playlist, another example of how different cultures coexist in Bolivia as a result of colonization, globalization, and syncretism. This playlist contains fifteen Christmas songs played by Banda Chiquichá, a typical Bolivian lowland musical group that includes percussion and wind instruments.

El Ausente – Los Hermanos Flores

In El Salvador, as in many Latin American countries, cumbias from past decades are a must during the end-of-the-year celebrations. In this case, the famous Salvadoran orchestra Los Hermanos Flores narrates the melancholy of many Salvadoran families separated by decades of forced migration, but with a danceable and joyful rhythm that reminds us of the need to accept the range of emotions that accompany the Christmas season. And so they toast to “the one who is absent, may he be present next year, let's wish him good luck, and may God keep him from death.” With these cumbias, Salvadoran families celebrate each New Year's Eve by eating elaborate turkey buns (panes con pavo), throwing small firecrackers in the street, and as is customary, going to greet neighbors.

Então é natal – Simone

The Brazilian Portuguese version of John Lennon's “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” divides opinions and people love to hate it in Brazil, but it is the song that announces that the Christmas season has arrived in the country, amid jokes and memes. The version of Simone was released in 1995, within an album titled “25 de diciembre.

The memes often joke with the song's opening lines, “So it's Christmas, and what have you done?”. In 2020, Veja magazine asked the singer how she dealt with the jokes, and Simone replied:

“Few people know that it's called Happy Xmas (War Is Over) and that it was composed by John Lennon. With him, everyone thinks it's beautiful. If John Lennon can do it, why can't I? Respect me. I've been in my career for 47 years.

Adonay – Rodolfo Aicardi with Los Hispanos

In Colombia, this song became very famous in 1970, when it was interpreted in the voice of Marco Tulio Aicardi Rivera, better known as Rodolfo Aicardi, with the orchestra he founded, Los Hispanos. Year after year, Adonay is an inspiration for parties and events and is a must every December.

Although his music is festive and encourages dancing and joy, his lyrics lead us to think about nostalgia and the love that could not be. The musician said that he met a woman named Adonay, to whom he proposed romance, but one day he never saw her again. Part of the lyrics are: “Adonay, why did you marry, Adonay, Adonay, why didn't you wait for my love (…)”.

This danceable hit still generates great curiosity among Colombians, who repeat the author's question about the reason why Adonay got married to someone else. So don't be surprised if you see users on social media posing this question as well.

Ya Viene el Niñito – Los Pibes Trujillo

Some of the best-known Christmas songs in Ecuador are attributed to national composer Salvador Bustamante Celi and performed by Luis and Juan Trujillo, also known as “Los Pibes Trujillo.” Many of these songs were recorded in the 1960s, and most of them talk about the birth of Jesus.

“The baby boy is about to come, playing among the flowers, and the little birds are singing to him with love” or “Sweet Jesus, my adored child, sweet Jesus, my adored child, come to our souls baby boy, come, don't take so long” are some of the most sung lyrics during this time of the year in Ecuador.

However, Ecuador is home to 18 peoples and 14 nations, and many of Ecuador's Christmas songs also represent this richness and the syncretism of cultures and beliefs, such as La Llegada del Niño Montubio (The Arrival of the Montubio Boy) by Jhony García Coque.

Emoções – Roberto Carlos

In Brazil, one of the most popular musical attractions is the “Roberto Carlos Special,” a musical concert that singer Roberto Carlos, known as the “King,” performs at Christmas time and which is broadcasted by the country's largest television network, TV Globo. An icon of the Brazilian cultural movement of the 1960s known as Jovem Guarda (Young Generation), Roberto Carlos and his songs have influenced generations with their rock influences and romantic and nostalgic lyrics.

Emoções (Emotions) is one of his best-known songs, as it deals with the appreciation of the present moment while addressing good memories, as well as the importance of experiencing all emotions, from crying to laughing.

Cholito Jesús – Los Toribianitos

The Toribianitos are a children's choir from the Santo Toribio school in the Rímac district of Lima. Their voices are everywhere at Christmas time, and for some, they are a bit tiresome. In this title, the word “cholito,” a word with a wide variety of meanings and means “Indigenous” in this context, is used as a term of endearment and should not be taken as derogatory as it is sometimes used. The child Manuelito is the name given to the baby Jesus in various parts of Peru, especially in the Andean area. It comes from Emanuel, which means “God with us.”

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