Family and friends have been known to fight around the holidays, but in the Peruvian Highlands, people celebrate Christmas by literally throwing punches.
Every Christmas, citizens of the Southern Peruvian village of Santo Tomas gather in the town commons to watch their neighbors physically fight each other. This Christmas tradition is named Takanakuy.
Takanakuy typically involves dozens of consecutive brawls between parties who agree to fight in order to settle disputes that emerged throughout the year. Some people fight to resolve grievances between friends and families, while others brawl to address important issues that could involve legal action.
Each fight lasts between five and ten minutes. Fighters are not allowed to bite, pull hair, use weapons, or strike their opponent while they are on the ground. Anything else is fair game. Referees supervise each fight and make sure fighters adhere to the rules. The fights end with a warm embrace and a promise to the spectators that the feud is over. When Takanakuy ends, the brawlers, spectators, and villagers all dine together.
Public brawling hardly seems in the spirit of Christmas. Yet the people of Santo Tomas have adhered to this tradition since the 1600s. Why?
Economic research teaches us that when seemingly strange traditions and rituals endure, it is often because they solve pressing social problems. As my coauthor and I argue in our recently published paper in the Journal of Institutional Economics, Takanakuy persists because it resolves disputes more effectively than the available alternatives.
Consider Peru’s judicial system. Accessing an official court requires traveling from Santo Tomas to Cusco or Arequipa, which means taking multiple buses and riding in trucks that make the trip weekly at best. Even if disputing parties make the journey, Peru’s judicial system discriminates against women and children and “frequently reach surprising verdicts that favor apparent criminals.”
Instead of appealing a costly, discriminatory, and untrustworthy judicial process, villagers turn to Takanakuy as a source of public justice. Because disputing parties brawl in front of their contemporaries and promise to resolve the dispute, locals trust the ritual to settle conflicts better than the courts. One survey found that 98 percent of fighters did not appeal to any formal process after the fight (regardless of the outcome).
Although violent itself, Takanakuy also deters costly violence and longstanding disputes by providing a way for parties to settle their differences through a structured, culturally accepted, and voluntary fighting arrangement. As one villager speaking to an anthropologist noted:
Recently, one of the Mendoza brothers was heavily hit. They finally got their revenge. His nose got broken, and now his wife is complaining. The aggressor—who pretends to know nothing—should have fought him at the Takanakuy festival. Now he will have to pay the healing and spend a lot of time and money. If he had hit him in the Takanakuy, everything would be fine.
Violence outside of Takanakuy is personally costly to disputing parties and can be harmful to local communities who rely on each other's cooperation for a variety of necessities. Takanakuy effectively mitigates both. When the local police force banned the ritual, more unsupervised fighting occurred. Locals moved the fighting to the streets, and the number of fights, injuries, and deaths from brawling increased.
Perhaps most important for Santo Tomas, choosing to participate in Takankuy benefits both the brawlers and the community. Participants earn considerable praise and respect from their peers by keeping their promises to brawl. Even weaker fighters secure reputational gains by earning the perception of being “fearless.”
Fighting in a public area during a major holiday also allows information on the conflict and the trustworthiness of disputing parties to spread quickly to large audiences. Honoring your word to participate reveals adherence to local customs and credibility.
It is often said that fighting doesn’t solve anything, but Takanakuy proves exactly the opposite for Santo Tomas every Christmas.
Merry Christmas and Feliz Takanakuy to all!
Meet the Author
Raymond March is a fellow at the Center for the Study of Public Choice and Private Enterprise (PCPE) and an assistant professor in the NDSU Department of Agribusiness and Applied Economics. Read his bio.