Christmas Traditions in Peru
Picture a bustling, open-air market in the summertime, with brightly costumed vendors selling handcrafted manger scenes. Homes are overflowing with hospitality, and displaying Nativities that depict wise men followed by a train of llamas, tamale vendors, and other local characters.

Such is Christmas in Peru: a delightful blend of Native culture and Colonial European traditions. Early Peruvians identified with the rural context of the arrival of the infant Christ. The crèche is a central Christmas theme and the subject of a wide range of regional interpretations: figures carved from wood, or pink or grey Huamanga stone from Ayacucho; "retablos", or carved wood altar boxes; and carved gourds called "mates burilados".

Throughout the country on Christmas Eve, or "Nochebueña", the family returns from Midnight Mass to find their stockings stuffed with gifts from "Papá Noel" (Santa Claus). A figure of the Christ child is placed in the manger, and children open presents to the sound of fireworks. A traditional meal features such foods as roasted guinea pig, "paneton" (fruitcake), turkey and tamales. Christmas was first celebrated in Lima in 1535, where Christmas day is highlighted by a bullfight and a procession with the statue of the Virgin Mary. Celebrations continue until "Bajada de los Reyes", the Arrival of the Kings, on January 6.

Enough for 30 medium-sized alfajores
INGREDIENTS: FOR THE "MIEL"* FILLING:
2 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1/2 cup margarine
3 1/2 tbsp confectioners' sugar
4 cups firmly packed dark brown sugar
1 cinnamon stick
2 cloves
2 cups water

* "Miel", or honey in Spanish, refers here to a spiced caramel filling.

PREPARATION

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. sift the dry ingredients onto a lightly floured board and make a well in the center. Place the softened margarine in the center and, using your fingertips, gradually work in the dry ingredients. Work the dough lightly, pushing it away from you with the palm of your hand and then drawing it back into a ball until it is smooth.

Chill for 30 minutes.

Roll chilled dough out on a floured work surface to 1/6 in and cut into rounds with a 2 1/2 - 3 in (7 cm) diameter cookie cutter. Place on a greased and floured cookie sheet and bake for about 12 minutes until barely golden. Be careful not to let them brown at all. Cool on racks and when completely cool, fill with the miel filling.

TO MAKE A MIEL FILLING:

Place the first four ingredients in a large heavy based pan and bring to a boil. Lower heat and simmer mixture gently until it forms a thick syrup, (238 degrees F on a candy thermometer). Mix in the vinegar and remove from the heat. Remove cloves and cinnamon stick and leave to cool before using. Tip: To check if the miel filling is done, put a drop in a bowl of cold water, it should form a soft ball.

ALTERNATIVE FILLING "MANJAR BLANCO":

"Manjar Blanco", or white treat, is a common Peruvian caramel filling. For Americans, it can be an acquired taste. To make, simply combine 1 can of evaporated milk and 1 can of condensed milk in a heavy-based saucepan. Simmer gently over low heat, stirring continually, until the mixture thickens to a dropping consistency and you can see the bottom of the saucepan, about 1 hour. Let cool before using.

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