It is Christmas. Venezuelan Christmas is different. Weeks before Christmas you may think you are in a war zone as fireworks go off at random in a crescendo that increases progressively until a huge explosion on New Year’s Eve. I have always wondered how people can afford the continuous explosion that one hears. I live next to a barrio that is a constant source of bangs since mid-November to the consternation of my dog. Fireworks are expensive and illegal, but that does not seem to limit explosive capacity of my neighbors.
Symbolism is all over the place. Even though we have no snow and pine trees like Christmas Trees they are all over the place, both natural and artificial. The natural ones are advertised as coming from Canada, but if you read the label they come form the US. As a little kid, it somewhat confusing to understand where Christmas presents come from. We have el Niño Jesus (Baby Jesus), Santa Claus and San Nicolas used roughly in that order interchangeably to make the mystery almost as confusing as the Holy Trinity.
Nativity scenes are everywhere and most homes have one, even if only small. Other deploy huge nativity scenes at home by covering boxes up with painted burlap and deploying even whole cities around the nativity scene.
The weeks prior to Christmas, kids go roller skating at night as part of the Christmas season. They also assemble either parranda groups, which sing traditional Venezuelan Christmas songs, or Gaita groups, which sing the traditional Christmas music from Maracaibo. Traditional Christmas songs are also a mixture of foreign songs, such as Holy Night, The little Drummer Boy or some locally made with parts as strange as:
I do not understand, I do not understand
How the parrot
Having a hole under its beak
Which is followed by a Christmassy chorus. Go Figure…
Gaitas are a whole different story and have overtaken the traditional songs. They are salsesque mixture of drums, guitars and horns, with words that may or not have anything to do with Christmas. The biggest expression of Gaitas in Venezuela is Guaco, with dozens of records and years under its belt.
There is of course food, led by the Hallaca a corn flour concoction that wraps in it’s inside a mixture of hen, meat, and various other ingredients with regional variations and looks something like this:
The left shows the inide of the hallaca as it is being eaten, the right how they are wrapped in plantain leaves, tied with string and cooked by boiling. Then you open it up and eat the tamale-looking inside on the left. It used to be that families got together a month before Christmas to make the family hallacas. As a kid I remember a sort of assembly line of Hallacas where the corn flour dough was laid on the plantain leaves and the hallaca moved done the assembly line and each person was in charge of adding one part. I loved to be in charge of placing the olives, so that I could eat dozens of them as the day progressed. Hallacas are eaten almost every day, at all Christmas parties until the point you just don’t want to see another one. Pork, hen salad, black cake, Spanish nougat, turkey and pan de jamón complete de menu. Pan de jamón is bread made of special dough inside of which one finds ham, olives and at least two types of raisins.
The best part is Christmas Eve, the most important celebration on the 24th. Whole families get together to celebrate, eat, dance, sing and drink in a very festive atmosphere. The best part is how happy everyone is, whole families together, three and four generations at a time, music in the background, some fireworks and sharing presents.
The next day the party goes on, as kids receive their presents from El Niño Jesus. After going to bed late, kids wake you up too early for any of the adults in the anxiety to open their presents. You spend the rest of the day recovering from not sleeping well and picking up wrapping paper and gathering your gifts.
It is indeed a very delightful time where everyone forgets about personal problems and everyone from all social levels follows similar customs, eats the same food and shares presents. In my family, we have dinner and I stay with some of my siblings (I come from a large family) at one home, where we sleep in beds, couches, even sleeping bags, so that we can all see the little kids open their presents in the morning. Afterwards, we have a huge breakfast together and everyone goes home to rest and sleep it off the rest of the day. It is indeed special. This year, it will all take place at my home, so it will be doubly special.
I hope all of you have as wonderful a time as I have every year in this very special holiday. Merry Christmas to all!