El Salvador Traditions Reveal a Unique, Vibrant Culture

A girl in a purple shirt is sitting in a chair, smiling and waving. She is holding a white paper flag on a stick.

El Salvador’s traditions easily set it apart from any other country. Who else has a national holiday in honor of “pupusas”? And what other country celebrates Christmas with huge fireworks displays and specializes in green coffee beans?

Let’s explore the culture of El Salvador, the Central American country where 66,113 Compassion-assisted children live, by learning more about Salvadoran traditions.

Traditional Holidays and Celebrations

In El Salvador, a Central American country about the size of New Jersey, traditions around holidays include both common and more unknown celebrations. But all Salvadoran holidays are celebrated in style!

One such holiday is Día de la Cruz, or Day of the Cross. This holiday is also celebrated in Spain, Peru and Venezuela, and it is a combination of Indigenous celebration in Central America and Roman Catholic tradition. On May 3 every year, many Salvadorans decorate crosses with paper chains and display them prominently in their homes. Offerings of fruit, candy, drinks, candles and other items surround these colorful crosses. Guests are invited to say a prayer of thanks in front of the cross and then take an offering.

Hand made wooden cross.
Photo: @m2menjivar, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

El Salvador celebrates its Independence Day on Sept. 15 along with Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. All five countries jointly declared independence from Spain on this day in 1821. Several days before Sept. 15, a torch begins its journey by hand through all five countries to commemorate the event. On Sept. 15, El Salvador celebrates with parades and street celebrations, including a parade of children.

From October to November, the city of San Miguel in El Salvador hosts a series of celebrations. They culminate in one big street festival that takes place Nov. 21 called the Carnival de San Miguel. The festival was created in honor of the patron of the city — the Virgen de la Paz, or the Virgin Mary. It is now one of the most famous celebrations in Central America. Thousands travel to the city to experience the festive parades, popular musical performances and traditional dances.

Carnival dancers in bright costumes.
Photo: jc_castaneda, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Everyone in El Salvador excitedly awaits Christmas, but the holiday begins the summer season, not the winter! Christmas in El Salvador is heavily influenced by U.S. Christmas traditions, including fake trees and artificial snow. But the country has its own traditions too! Fireworks explode throughout Christmas night, which is Dec. 24 in El Salvador. Turkey, chicken and other traditional foods are enjoyed with family members. Of course, gifts are given for Christmas in El Salvador.

El Salvador adds its own flavor to the quinceañera, the well-known Latin American coming-of-age tradition just for girls. Girls in El Salvador host a pink-themed “fiesta rosa” (rose party) on their 15th birthday. They often wear a beautiful pink dress because pink is traditionally a color of gratitude in El Salvador. The color scheme shows the girl’s thankfulness to her parents and guests. Friends serve as attendants to the birthday girl, somewhat like bridesmaids, and guests give many presents. The celebration may also include a religious service and the gift of a ring by the girl’s parents to signify her new status as an adult.

Easter is another tradition-filled time in El Salvador. The week of Easter is Holy Week, and the festivities revolve around Roman Catholic tradition. Lent is one of the most important Easter traditions in El Salvador. And on Good Friday, there are two major processions. Early in the morning there is the “passion,” the representation of the walk Jesus took with the cross toward Golgotha.

Foods in El Salvador Traditions

Many interesting traditional foods are unique to El Salvador. Here are a few:

Pupusas: As the national dish of El Salvador, pupusas are so popular that the second Sunday in November is a nationwide holiday celebrating them: National Pupusa Day! Pupusas are made by filling corn or rice tortillas with meat, beans, cheese or other ingredients like vegetables. Some families in El Salvador do not have access to meat, so pupusas are often made with just beans and cheese, like in this recipe.

A 9 year old girl holds in her hand one ‘pupusa’ stuffed with cheese and shredded carrot. She smiles joyfully. She is wearing a purple polo shirt and has her hair in a ponytail. The background is a blue wall.

Quesadilla Salvadoreña: A traditional dish, this sweet, yellow cake is made from rice flour and includes many unique ingredients like “ajonjoli” (sesame seeds), “queso duro blando” (hard-soft cheese), “cuayada” (milk curds), and “crema salvadoreña” (like sour cream). It is often sold by street vendors as a quick breakfast to be enjoyed with coffee.

Coffee: While this is not a unique food item in general, the Salvadoran specialty is green, or unroasted, coffee. Coffee in El Salvador is a tradition that extends back to the early 1800s, when it was first cultivated. It still makes up over 50% of exports from El Salvador.

Tamales: Popular in several Latin American countries, tamales vary in their fillings and what they’re wrapped in. Salvadoran tamales are made wrapped in banana leaves or corn husks. They tend to be milder in spice than Mexican tamales.

Arts and Crafts

El Salvador traditions include many stunning trades and products unique to the country.

Textiles: For over two centuries, weavers in El Salvador have created intricate scarves, blankets, purses and more on hand-powered wooden looms called “telares.” These textile artists add each individual thread using a wooden instrument called a shuttle, which they push over the loom by hand. The vibrant colors they use make the final product a joy to see!

Hammocks: El Salvador is also known for its creation — and use — of hammocks. In fact, the capital of El Salvador, San Salvador, sits in what is known as El Valle de las Hamacas, or the Valley of the Hammocks. The name references the earthquakes that rock the city like the sway of a hammock, and it also shows how closely hammocks are tied to the country. Hammocks are used constantly all over El Salvador, and the hammocks created in the country are known globally for their quality and beauty. They are traditionally hand-woven vertically between two poles and not made in a factory.

Boy sitting in a hammock. The background is the divisions inside the house, and behind them are the bedrooms where the family sleeps.

Pottery: El Salvador is renowned for its beautifully painted ceramics. Brought to El Salvador by Spanish settlers in the 18th century, the difficult technique is now passed down from generation to generation of artists. The colorful and intricate designs in the vases, wall decorations, animal representations and religious statues make them truly beautiful.

El Salvador: A Vibrant and Unique People

Amanda, in a blue and white shirt, Yessica, in pink, Argelio, in a bright orange-pink shirt, a boy in green, and a boy in blue are sitting on the steps in front of a building looking at each other and holding chickens. There are more chickens on the ground in front of them. The building is made of wood, corrugated metal an concrete.

Thriving traditions specific to El Salvador wouldn’t exist without people who are just as unique. Compassion is honored to serve some of them! With almost 300 local church partners, Compassion currently minister to over 66,000 children in El Salvador while helping to release them from poverty. And each child served is encouraged to celebrate their unique and beautiful traditions!

Compassion photos from El Salvador by Nora Diaz and Emily Turner.

1 Comment |Add a comment

  1. Sally Akehi July 15, 2021

    I wanted to say thank you for your very interesting and “colorful” descriptions of the holidays in El Salvador. So much information that we in the states do not know much about these customs but it isgood to know about them! I have really enjoyed the various postings that you have added to the Compassion website! I have a girl in Thailand. She is the third child I have had the honor of supporting and writing to! I enjoy writing to her very much. Thank you so much for giving us the opportunity to learn so much about all the countries that you are working in and supporting!! May God bless your ministry richly!! Sally Akehi

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