Chile’s traditional festivals

Festivals are a vibrant part of Chilean life from historical to religious, gastronomic to cultural. In fact, Chile itself is a festival – and everyone’s invited! Here are some of the most popular traditional celebrations.

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Versión en Español Fiestas tradicionales de Chile

At the Grape Harvest Festival in central Chile, a peasant couple crushes grapes underfoot to celebrate the wonder of Chilean wine.

In northern Chile’s Fiesta de la Tirana, the sun’s rays glisten on the colorful costumes, instruments and masks of dancers performing the carnivalesque dance of diablada.

Easter Island‘s Tapati Festival is playful and magical, while at the Cuasimodo festival in central Chile a priest brings the Holy Communion to the sick, escorted by bandana-wearing horsemen.

On the island of Chiloé, people hold mingas, gathering in group labor to celebrate a neighbor building a house or moving in, while elsewhere in the country, mingas are held for harvests of corn, cherries and grape cider.

And then there are the Fiestas Patrias, Chile’s annual national celebration of independence. The date is commemorated to the rhythm of the national dance, the cueca, and toasted with red wine, grape cider and savory pies called empanadas. Hundreds of thousands of people throughout Chile take part, and tourists visit from all over the world.

Directory of Popular Festivals

Fiesta Tapati on Easter Island (Rapa Nui)
On mystical Easter Island, the February Fiesta Tapati sees painted bodies become art. A queen is chosen for the festival from amongst the young people, who compete for the honor in swimming and canoeing competitions using small boats and rafts made of totora reeds. The teams prepare traditional costumes, songs and dances, and share the stories of myths and legends in oral narrations. Body painting, called Takona, is the festival’s chief characteristic, where the islanders paint their bodies with symbols of their mythic origins using natural pigments. Physical skill is also put to the test in the Haka Pei competition, in which the most daring young men hurl themselves at great speed down a mountain, tobogganing over banana tree trunks.

El Carnavalón
Also in February is the Carnavalón festival, held in the northern regions of in San Miguel de Azapa, Putre and Socoroma. The carnival, which attracts thousands of people each year from the Chilean high plateau or altiplano, is a traditional Hispanic-Amerindian festival, celebrated 40 days before Lent. It is held to symbolically resurrect Ño Carnavalón, an ancient symbol of joy, fertility and fortune, whose presence is a sign that there will be happiness throughout the year. It is also a greeting to Pachamama, Mother Earth, and to Tata Inti, Father Sun, with music, dancing, and local fruits, in a promise of abundance.

La Semana Valdiviana (Valdivian Week)
There are more festivals in February. In southern Chile, the region of lakes and thousand-year-old forests, the residents of Valdivia celebrate the founding of their city on February 9, 1552 in the festival of La Semana Valdiviana. “On the Calle-Calle River the moon is dancing,” goes a local song. And each year on February 9, scores of vessels make the river come to life, captivating Valdivians and visitors from all over Chile and abroad. The garlanded ships compete for the prize of most glamorous vessel of all, and are the perfect setting for crowning the Queen of All Rivers. A fireworks display closes the festival, while along the riverbank people enjoy street performances, dining and beer drinking, the latter a reminder of the cultural influence of the German immigrants who began to arrive  in the region in the 1800s.

Grape Harvest Festival
The prestige of Chilean wine is celebrated in a special way in the central zone. Preparations begin with the arrival of summer, and the festivities culminate during the final weeks of March. The Grape Harvest Festival of the city of Curicó is probably the most impressive of all. A religious ceremony blesses the first batch of pulped grapes, followed by a parade. The Grape Harvest also chooses a Queen, who is weighed on a balance against bottles of wine while a contest is held between grape stompers. Each competing team stomps 20 kg of grapes for ten minutes, until the fruit is converted into juice. Applause and shouts of encouragement follow the stompers’ energetic progress as they compete to crush all the grapes and produce the largest quantity of juice they can.

Cultural Festivals
The prestige of Chilean wine is celebrated in a special way in the central zone. Preparations begin with the arrival of summer, and the festivities culminate during the final weeks of March. The Grape Harvest Festival of the city of Curicó is probably the most impressive of all. A religious ceremony blesses the first batch of pulped grapes, followed by a parade. The Grape Harvest also chooses a Queen, who is weighed on a balance against bottles of wine while a contest is held between grape stompers. Each competing team stomps 20 kg of grapes for ten minutes, until the fruit is converted into juice. Applause and shouts of encouragement follow the teams as they compete to crush all the grapes and produce the biggest hauls of juice.

Indigenous New Year
The indigenous peoples of Chile – the Aymara, Quechua, Rapa Nui and Mapuche nations – follow their own ancestral calendar. For them the New Year begins with the winter solstice on the night of June 24. The harvest has ended and the earth must rest, prepare herself for the sowing of crops, and renew her fertility. It is a new cycle of life, and the indigenous cultures express their gratitude to Nature. The New Year festival of the Mapuche Indians is the best known. It is called We Tripantu, meaning “the sun’s new turn” or “the return of the sun.” It is celebrated in the rural regions of the south, in the city of Temuco in the main square, and in Santiago on the hill of Santa Lucía (Huelén).

Fiesta de San Pedro
April is the month of the Chile + Cultura festival, organized nationwide by the National Council of Culture and the Arts. It features work by Chilean artists and artisans throughout the country, bringing culture to the public and creating spaces for the artists to showcase their work. Musicians, poets, painters, filmmakers, actors and dancers all take part, displaying their work to the massive audiences that bring the festivals to life.

Fiesta de La Tirana
La Tirana is a small town in the northern Tarapaca Region, near the city of Iquique. But its annual festival, Fiesta de la Tirana, has acquired an importance that spreads far beyond the itself. It has become Chile’s most celebrated festival, visited by both local pilgrims and tourists.  On June 12 to 17 each year, dancers and musicians enact the diablada, the ‘dance of the devils’, a carnavalesque dance for exorcising demons. The dance troupe, wearing fearsome costumes and masks, move to the rhythm of drums and flutes, with the leader of the troupe setting the pace with toots on a whistle. The festival demonstrates a synthesis between local indigenous religions and Catholicism, also paying homage to the Virgen del Carmen, or ‘Our Lady of Mount Carmel’. Descendants of the Atacameño, Kunza, Aymara and other indigenous peoples arrive at the Virgin’s sanctuary in processions, making promises in exchange for blessings. Masses are said in the church while in the surrounding area there are stalls with handicrafts and food, and dancing throughout the day.

Winter Carnivals in the South
The winter cold of the far south is brightened by the warmth of its festivals and carnivals. In July, the Fiesta de la Nieve or Snow Festival is held in Puerto Williams, the southernmost city in the world. Locals and tourists all take part. In the same month, in Punta Arenas, is the Winter Carnival, the region’s most important festival. Parades and street bands circulate in the center of the city, local girls compete to win the scepter of the Carnival Queen, and fireworks light up the night sky along the Strait of Magellan.

Fiestas Patrias - National Holidays
On the 18th and 19th of September, Chile’s National Holidays’ celebrations take place. The coming Spring is anticipated by open-air ramadas, shelters with roofs made of tree branches, and fondas, refreshment stands offering typical dishes, meat or cheese empanadas, cider and red wine. Under the shelter of the ramadas people dance the cueca, the national dance of Chile. It is found with small local variations throughout Chile, and consists of pairs of dancers waving handkerchiefs in the air to depict couples courting and flirting. The people commemorate the First Assembly of the Government, which marked the beginning of  Chile’s independence on September 18th, 1810, and military triumphs are celebrated with a parade, presided over by the President, in Santiago’s Parque O’Higgins. The Chilean flag is displayed on houses and apartments and children fly kites and play with marbles and spinning tops. They have hopscotch competitions and greased pole climbing contests. There are horse races, Chilean style – bareback, the rider holding onto the horse’s mane – while rodeos are held in traditional rings.

Fiesta de La Virgen de Andacollo
The Festival of the Virgen of Andacollo, in the northern town of Andacollo, is a popular religious festival celebrating copper, Chile’s greatest natural resource. Andacollo was a settlement of Molle people, who are related to the Incas and developed agriculture and exploited the copper resources.  In their native language of Quechua, ‘anta’ means copper, and ‘coya’ means monarch, and the Virgen of Andacollo is thus known as the Queen of Copper. The festival, held each year on 24th - 26th December, is one of the most widely-attended religious festivals in Chile, with Chinese dances and pledges to the Virgin. Chilean and foreign tourists are habitual visitors and participants.

Christmas
Like Christians around the world, Chileans commemorate the birth of Christ on December 25. On Christmas Eve night, families gather together to eat fruit cake and drink cola de mono, a traditional drink prepared with spirits, milk, sugar, coffee and cinnamon. This holiday is especially dedicated to children, who receive gifts from Santa, known in Chile as el viejito pascuero.  Presents are placed under a Christmas tree hung with lights and decorated with cotton wool ‘snow’, and the children open their gifts at midnight. At the foot of the tree is a manger, with Baby Jesus being worshipped by the Three Kings. Traditionally, people sing Christmas carols from the farming community, and attend Church services held on Christmas Day.

New Year
The New Year is welcomed in cities throughout Chile with spectacular fireworks displays at midnight on December 31. The most impressive are in the port city of Valparaiso, where thousands of people seek out the best vantage points on hillside terraces overlooking the sea. People usher in the new year by hugging, toasting with champagne and exchanging wishes for prosperity. Many have their own rituals for the New Year: some people eat lentil dishes; some write down everything that was bad about the old year, and then burn the paper symbolically; some write down all their wishes for the New Year, and then hide the piece of paper away. There are those who go out walking with luggage, so they will travel during the year; and there are those who wear ‘lucky’ items, such as yellow underwear or borrowed or new clothes.

This post is also available in Spanish