In Venezuela, Christmas is celebrated with a number of
religious and traditional customs. As a predominantly Catholic country, Christmas
festivities celebrate the birth of the child Jesus. The religious celebrations begin on
the 16th of December with masses said every morning until December 24th, when the
religious service is held at midnight (Misa de Gallo).
The main celebration takes place on Christmas Eve,
"Noche Buena" as it is called in Spanish. Families get together to enjoy the traditional holiday
meal: "hallacas," "pan de jamón," "dulce de lechoza." The pan de "jamón" is a long bread filled
with cooked ham and raisins. The "dulce de lechoza" is a dessert made of green papaya and
brown sugar, slowly cooked for hours and served cold.
Many homes put up a Christmas tree but the most authentic
Venezuelan custom is to display a nacimiento (Nativity scene). A more sophisticated
nacimiento is the pesebre. This represents an entire region with mountains, hills, plains
and valleys. The central point is a replica of the manger at Bethlehem. The structure is a
framework covered with canvas and painted accordingly. Often, the pesebre becomes a real
work of art.
On December 25 children awake to find their gifts around the
Nacimiento or the Christmas tree. Tradition has it that it is the Child Jesus who brings
gifts to the Venezuelan children instead of Santa Claus.
The Christmas festivities come to an official closing on
January 6, the Day of the Reyes Magos (the three wise kings who came to visit Mary and the
infant Jesus), when children again receive toys and candies. Christmas is, above all, the
main holiday during which Venezuelan families get together and rejoice.
Music plays an important role in the celebrations. The
traditional songs of this period are called aguinaldos. In the old days the aguinalderos
(singers of aguinaldos) would go from home to home singing their songs and playing
traditional instruments such as the cuatro (a small, four strings guitar), the maracas
(rattle) and the furruco (a small, elongated drum with a wooden stick in the middle. The
movement of the stick slightly indented on the drums leather is what produces the sound).