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Monthly Archives: December 2006

A Venezuelan Christmas

The blend of the African, European and native traditions give way to the multicultural outcome of what it is today the Venezuelan society. Because of the culture’s joyful people and the traditions that characterize our country throughout the year, Christmas holidays represent the perfect occasion for native and non-native residents to reveal their own traditions and share them with their family, neighbors and friends. The array of Venezuelan religious and traditional customs during Christmas is rich and endless because each region and family celebrates it in a different way; Venezuelan Christmas therefore embraces not only the food, as I’ve discussed in a previous post, but also the music, décor, family reunions and other practices that define this season in the country. Some of the aspects of the Venezuelan customs during Christmas are briefly explained below with the intention to provide an idea of how we celebrate.Duration: The Christmas season in Venezuela is usually celebrated from mid- to late-November until the end of January. Christmas officially starts on November 18th, “Día de la Virgen de Chiquinquirá” (Virgin of Chiquinquira Day) also known as “La Chinita,” and it customarily ends on February 2nd, “Día de Candelaria” (Candelaria Day) when the trees and Nativities are disassembled.

Christmas Tree: Most houses are decorated with the typical Christmas tree and the Nativity scene. Even though the Christmas tree is originally from Nordic countries, this custom has been adopted by the Venezuelan society, and it represents today a typical tradition. To commemorate the Christmas season, Christmas trees are decorated with ornaments, lights and presents. A five-point star is also placed in the highest branch at the tip of the tree. Unlike many other countries, Christmas trees in Venezuela are rarely evergreen but instead they’re usually artificial. The family typically gathers to put up the tree and children participate placing ornaments.

Nativity: Because the Venezuelan population is mostly Catholic, “pesebres” or “nacimientos” (Nativity scenes) are protagonist during Christmas, and the birth of Baby Jesus is celebrated during this season. The Nativity is often displayed in a visible area of the living room so that visitors and family members can be delighted with its glory. The portrayal of the Nativity scene can range from simple to complex. Some families become artists when it comes to putting together the Nativity and the most sophisticated scenes are put up to represent an entire region with mountains, hills, plains, lakes, valleys and the manger at Bethlehem. This is a very important tradition in most Venezuelan dwellings as the entire family generally gathers to put up the Nativity scene. The figures used are the typical shepherds, the Magi, Mary, Joseph and Jesus. Sheep and camels are also protagonist together with the Bethlehem Star and Angel Gabriel. Baby Jesus usually remains covered for most of the month of December until the stroke of 12am on Christmas Eve when he’s symbolically born.

Christmas Spirit: This is a very unique tradition dictating that every year on December 21st; when the winter season officially stars, the Christmas Spirit comes down to Earth to physically bring everything we wish for. This is another Nordic tradition that has been instilled in the Venezuelan culture, and although the myths behind this ritual are various; it is said that the Christmas Spirit is the energy within us that brings peace, love, harmony, joy and all the non-tangible things that we long for. The ritual consists of having the family gather around a table between 10pm and 12am while celebrating with wine, “ponche” or champagne and cake or nougat. Each individual around the table must prepare a list of what are much like resolutions for the year or have it done before midnight. The old list of resolutions is tore apart and tossed at the time, and the new lists are put in a container or basket in the center of the table. Each member then grabs his or her list and saves it until the following year. The celebration of this tradition varies widely from family to family, and some people don’t even celebrate it. There are people who believe in cleaning the house the night before the Christmas Spirit comes, so that they can be released from all bad energies. Other people celebrate by lighting blue candles during the ritual for the Spirit to come pleasantly.

Music: During Christmas, music plays a very important part in Venezuela. “Gaitas” are the main popular music during this season and this kind of music was originally created as a way for citizens to protest. These songs started in the city of Maracaibo in Zulia State, although the tradition has extended throughout the Venezuelan geography. Even though there are different kinds of Gaitas, the most traditional type is called “Gaita del Furro.” When Venezuelans speak about “Gaitas” they are mainly speaking about “Gaita del Furro,” and this kind of Gaita is named after the leading instrument “furro” or “furruco” used to play Gaitas. This kind of Gaita is very catchy because of the musical rhythm and its lyrics. It is therefore the most commercial kind of Gaita played and known by the Venezuelan culture. Venezuelan Gaitas usually start on middle-September and they last until the end of Christmastime.

Besides Gaitas, the “Aguinaldos” or “Villancicos” are also typical Venezuelan songs sung during Christmas. It is customary to gather groups of people who go door-to-door singing “Aguinaldos” to Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus while playing traditional instruments such as the “cuatro”, “furruco” and “maracas” (discussed below.) After Aguinaldo performances, people living in the visited houses usually give out candy, cake or any kind of drink to thank the group of singers. Because of this tradition, the term “aguinaldo” is usually associated with gifts. As time has gone by, this custom has developed into what is today the “Aguinaldo Navideño,” which is typically a monetary present or extra pay given to and received by employees and companies during Christmas time. Some other people prefer to give a “Cesta Navideña” (Christmas Basket), containing bottles of champagne or wine, nougat, cookies and any other kind of non-perishable food that the individual or family wishes to offer during Christmas time.

Instruments: The instruments used for playing Gaitas and Aguinaldos are usually customary to the Venezuelan culture. The main instrument used for Aguinaldos and Gaitas is the “cuatro,” which is a guitar-like instrument but smaller and with four strings only. For Gaitas, the “charrasca” and “tambora” are also used. The “charrasca” is a traditional steel tube-shaped instrument that’s usually 12 inches in length by 3 inches in diameter. It is a relatively small instrument normally hand-held played. This instrument is stroked in an upward and downward motion with a metal rod that produces different sounds upon contact to the steel tube. The “tambora” was originally a horizontal drum, although vertical barrel-drums are also typical. These drums are beat with two wooden sticks to produce diverse sounds on the tightly stretched leather membrane and on the sides. The “maracas” are rattle-like instruments used mainly for the Aguinaldos. Finally, the “furruco” is another important instrument used in both Gaitas and Aguinaldos. The “furruco” or “furro” is a friction drum with a wooden stick slightly pierced into the middle of the drum and whose movement in the leather produces a unique and characteristic sound much like that of the bass.

Food: Regarding the culinary aspect of the Venezuelan Christmas, the food is also an important part of these festivities. The range of Christmas food is diverse, and it includes “hallacas”, “pan de jamón” (ham bread), “torta negra” (dark or black cake), “dulce de lechoza” (green papaya dessert), “ponche crema” (eggnog), “ensalada de gallina” (chicken salad) and stuffed “pernil” or “pavo” (pork thigh or turkey). I’ve dedicated a separate post to the typical Venezuelan food during Christmas, so you can refer to it for an extended explanation of what each dish is made of. Even though these are some of the typical dishes eaten on Christmas/New Year’s Eve, each family has its own tradition, so regardless of what they eat, what’s important is that the meal is plentiful, special, and usually out of the ordinary when compared to daily life menus.

Fireworks: The burning of fireworks is one the characteristic traditions of Venezuelan Christmas. Fireworks in Venezuela are exploded ever since the start of the season until the New Year. The noises and brilliant lighting effects produced by firecrackers, rockets and sparkles, among others, are children’s and some adults’ favorite. A huge display of fireworks follows the Christmas and New Year’s dinner although the biggest display occurs after the New Year is received. The fireworks are seen and heard throughout the entire season, and they are by far one of the most special entertainments of the night during December 24th and 31st. Regardless of the danger of these explosive items, parents rarely seem to hesitate when buying a few bags of fireworks to be burned during Christmas. I’ve celebrated Christmas in Venezuela, America and Spain; and I can tell you for sure, that I’ve never seen and heard so many fireworks in my life as I have in Venezuela. They are simply a must.

Christmas Eve: It is called “Noche Buena” in Spanish, and it is celebrated on December 24th when Venezuelans usually prepare a Christmas dinner for the entire family and gather at the grandparents’, an uncle’s or aunt’s house. This dinner usually includes any or all of the typical Venezuelan Christmas dishes although the time at which family members actually dine depends on the customs of each family. The typical time to have dinner is around 9 to 10pm after all guests have arrived and people have had a chance to catch up and chat for a while. Then dinner is served and a Champagne toast is usually given to celebrate the evening. Dessert follows together with typical Christmas nougats and dry fruits such as nuts, almonds and hazelnut. Following dinner, the entire family goes out to the street or backyard to explode firecrackers, rockets and all kinds of fireworks. Later on during the night and frequently around midnight, the family gathers once more but this time around the Christmas tree to exchange presents. In extended families the “Amigo Secreto” (Secret Santa) is typical among adults. Children typically receive toys and gifts from all of their relatives and spend what’s left of the night playing with their new presents until they go to bed. Some children make sure to leave cookies and milk for Baby Jesus’ stop. In Venezuela, Baby Jesus is the one to bring the presents rather than Santa Claus, although Santa is also well known. Overnight, Baby Jesus stops by the house to leave children some more presents, generally the presents listed in the letter that children wrote and left on the tree for Baby Jesus at the beginning of the month.

Misa de Gallo: As the religious celebrations begin in Venezuela on December 16th, masses are held every morning until the 24th, when the religious service is held at midnight in what is known as “Misa de Gallo” or “Misa de Aguinaldo.” This is the last mass of the year and many families rush to the Church after Christmas dinner although many other Catholics don’t follow this tradition.

Amigo Secreto: The “Amigo Secreto” (Secret Santa) is not necessarily a Christmas tradition, but simply a ritual that most Venezuelans participate in during Christmas and other times of the year. It is a game that consists of exchanging gifts between groups of people. The participants can be family members, friends and co-workers, as this tradition is usually held at the workplace, between groups of friends and even within the family. The name of the participants are written in pieces of paper of the same color and size, the pieces of paper are folded so that the names can’t be read, and they’re mixed in a container or plastic bag. Then each person grabs a piece of paper and opens it secretly so that nobody else can read it. The one who grabs is the “secret Santa” of the person whose name is written on the paper. This is done so that large groups of people don’t have to buy a present for each person but still ensure that each person receives at least a gift. The group of people sets a day to exchange presents and they usually pick a price range or even specify the kind of gift that one must give. For example, school friends can agree to exchange homemade cakes or cookies, or co-workers can agree to exchange music CD’s. In any case, the idea is to offer family and friends a little something during Christmas.

A variant of this tradition consists of secret Santas giving a little something to their friend every day and then a bigger gift at the end. In school, friends usually give each other candy but always making sure to send the presents with somebody else or to leave them secretly at the friend’s desk or locker so that nobody discovers who’s secret friend is who until the very end. This is a fun ritual that brings people closer and gives them a chance to express their love through cards and/or gifts during Christmastime.

Christmas Day: On December the 25th, children wake up early and run to the Christmas tree to see what Baby Jesus has left them. They open their presents and spend the day playing with them. Christmas day is a national holiday, so families spend the day together at their houses and they usually prepare a special lunch with leftovers from the night before.

New Year’s Eve: On December 31st, the custom is to prepare dinner following more or less the same pattern of Christmas Eve. However, before the stroke of midnight the family gathers around the table to receive the New Year. Each individual is provided with twelve grapes, which have been pre- counted and wrapped in foil paper or little plastic bags by one of the hosts. This tradition started in the 1920’s by a Catalonian vineyard farmer. Music accompanies the celebration while popular radio or TV stations are on to pronounce the bell rings. When the bells start striking, individuals start eating their grapes, one for each stroke while making a wish for the New Year. At the end of the 12th bell stroke family members start warmly hugging while wishing each other a “Feliz Año” (Happy New Year.) A toast is given and the party goes on with some more music and fireworks.

Many other smaller traditions/superstitions are also followed before, during and after the New Year. For example, it is supposed to bring good luck to go out to the streets after 12am and take with you a suitcase if you wish to travel during the New Year. It is also said that a serving of lentils during New Year’s dinner will bring good look and prosperity on the upcoming year. Some people also think that wearing red clothing items and yellow underwear can bring good luck, or that having a bill or two in one’s pocket at the stroke of midnight will bring financial fortune throughout the year that’s about to start. There are many traditions that in a way or another people do on this night, so it is hard to make a complete list of the many customs of Venezuelans during this night, but these are a few of the most common ones for those of you who are curious about how it is that we celebrate our Christmastime.

Epiphany: The Epiphany or Twelfth day, “Día de Reyes” in Spanish, is a holiday celebrated on January 6th by Catholics in Venezuela and many other geographical regions of the world. This yearly festivity commemorates “both the revealing of Jesus as the Christ to the Gentiles in the persons of the Magi and the baptism of Jesus.” The name “Día de Reyes” (Magi) follows the three wise kings who came to visit Virgin Mary bearing gifts to the newborn Baby Jesus. In Spanish, these kings are called “Reyes Magos,” and although this tradition is not celebrated in Venezuela as much as other Christmas customs, it is still a ritual that many families rejoice; especially those with European roots. During the Día de Reyes, children usually receive some toys and candy again. The tradition dictates that they need to leave a pair of shoes either under the tree or by their room’s door for the Reyes Magos to drop presents. The end of the Christmas season is usually celebrated on this day although in Venezuela the festivities extend until the first days of February.

Looking back at the list of Christmas customs, it can be said that Venezuela has a very rich and diverse range of traditions that define the spirit and the essence that characterize people during this time of the year. Although not every Venezuelan commemorates this holiday in the same way, some of these traditions are unique to the Venezuelan culture. No matter what your culture is, the important thing is that you spend this special time with the people you most care about.

Image composition by: Coraline

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Posted by on December 29, 2006 in días como hoy

 

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Venezuelan Christmas Dinner

Embracing the language, moral codes, rituals, religion and norms within different societies, culture involves the elements that are passed on through generations and define the attitudes and behaviors adopted within specific geographical regions. Different activities and beliefs reflect the elements of specific cultures; elements that are understood and shared by individuals who act in ways previously established by tradition.

Have you ever wondered about the typical traditions of other cultures during Christmas time? Being the most special time of the year, Venezuelan Christmas traditions are very rich because of the variety of cultures that have been assimilated into its society. There are many Venezuelan traditions during Christmas and also many traditional meals prepared and devoured during this time, and as much as I would like to talk about them all, I’ll focus today on the food since I love eating so much, and since I’m at my house anxiously waiting for our Christmas dinner to be ready.

I’ll tell you about some of the main Christmas dishes prepared in Venezuela during this time of the year, which are also Christmas dishes that you are not likely to find in any other culture. The Hallaca, Pan de Jamón, Torta Negra, Dulce de Lechosa and Ponche Crema are the main protagonist dishes that conform the classic Venezuelan Christmas dinner.

The most traditional Venezuelan-Christmas-dinner dish is the Hallaca. The Hallaca is a savory pastry made of a yellow-color cornmeal dough filled with stew, wrapped with banana leaves and cooked to mix the flavors. This sole dish has the influence of three cultures. The white one, because of the European ingredients such as raisins, nuts, and olives that the Hallacas contain; the native one, because of the cornmeal colored with onoto seeds, and the black one from which we obtain the banana leaves used to cook the food. There are different types of Hallaca depending on each region of the country. The original Hallacas are made with different kinds of chopped meat such as pork, poultry, and beef as well as different condiments including green pepper, onion, garlic, tomatoes and spices. Hallacas require hours of preparation and the whole family usually reaunites to make them.

The Hallaca dough is prepared with the cornmeal and colored with the onoto seeds; then, portions of the dough are extended over squared pieces of banana leaves previously cleaned. The pre-cooked stew, that is usually made the night before preparation of Hallacas, is then added, and the banana leaves are finally folded to form rectangular bags that are tied with kitchen string and boiled in huge pots for approximately an hour. The Hallacas can be kept in the refrigerator for two or three weeks and they are boiled for a few minutes and removed from the banana leaves before serving. The flavors are unique and this dish is a personal favorite during Christmas. Although the Hallacas are usually prepared on Christmas, they could be prepared during any time of the year. Some people like to prepare them and freeze them so that they can have Hallacas throughout the year, and this exquisite dish is typically served with chicken salad and ham bread.

In addition to the Hallacas, Venezuelan Christmas are inconceivable without the Pan de Jamón or ham bread. I can guarantee that all Venezuelans living far way from their homeland, dream with their Christmas Hallacas and Pan de Jamón. Fortunately, there are some specialized Venezuelan bakeries scattered throughout the world such as those found in South Florida or The Canary Islands in which the prized Venezuelan Christmas food can be found. The Pan de Jamón is a long, jellyroll-like bread filled with ham, olives, and raisins. This kind of bread dates back to the 1900’s. It doesn’t seem to have an ancient history, but it has become an essential dish in the Venezuelan Christmas dinner.

Today, every family has its own recipe, and every bakery in the country assures that its ham bread is the best. The ham bread can be made with the original flour dough or puffy pastry. As I mentioned before, it is made with olives, raisins, ham and sometimes bacon. For its preparation, the dough is made with regular flour and once ready, it is extended in rectangular portions of approximately 12 by 15 inches. A layer of ham is then placed over the dough pieces and the olives and raisins are then added. The dough pieces are finally rolled and placed on metal trays into the oven for cooking during 25 to 30 minutes. After the ham breads are ready, you can store them in plastic bags for a few days and slice them before serving.

Of course no meal is complete without dessert and drinks, so besides the Hallacas and the ham bread, another main traditional Venezuelan Christmas dish is the Dulce de Lechosa or green papaya dessert. Even though I’m not a big fan of this dessert and although not every family prepares it, it still is a typical dessert frequently prepared for Christmas. The green papaya dessert consists of slim strips of green papaya that are cooked with a previously prepared brown sugar syrup combined with cinnamon and cloves. It is a very easy-to-make dessert usually preserved on glass jars and that serves as a delicious gift for friends and family members during Christmas.

Another typical dish is the Torta Negra (dark or black cake). Although this cake is not originally from Venezuela, it has however become one of the traditional desserts in our tables during this time of the year. The original recipe has been adapted to include some of the unique Venezuelan ingredients that yield this delicious and traditional recipe. Its delicate taste comes from the maceration process that characterizes the preparation of this cake. A variety of dry fruits such as nuts, almonds, and raisins are put to maceration for over a month before this recipe can actually be prepared and this is key to the dark cake. The fruits are left macerating in rum within a glass container stored at a place that receives no direct sunlight. After the month, these fruits are added to the recipe whose ingredients are the same as those used for preparing a typical cake: flour, sugar, butter, eggs, milk and vanilla.

Unlike the dishes mentioned above, the Ponche Crema is actually the typical drink consumed in Venezuela during Christmas time, and it is a beverage that has over 100 years of tradition in the country. It is said to have a “secret formula” that combines four main natural ingredients to obtain a fine and delicious eggnog-like drink, which today represents the heritage of most Venezuelans. The Ponche Crema is a cream-based liquor whose recipe can also vary from region to region, but that is usually prepared with ingredients such as milk, rum, eggs, vanilla and condensate milk. This beverage resembles the American eggnog, and unlike the rest of the Venezuelan dishes except for the dark cake, it is today produced at the industrial level. The Ponche Crema can be stored for long periods of time at room temperature; temperature at which this drink can be served other than fridge cold. Its texture is soft and creamy with a sweet taste. This drink can also serve as the base for cocktails and other drinks when blended with different juices and ice.

The Hallaca, Pan de Jamón, Torta Negra, Dulce de Lechosa and Ponche Crema are some of the most important dishes of the Venezuelan Crhistmas dinner. They are part of the tradition of this culture and they provide a warm and great environment that all Venezuelans enjoy during this time of the year. It doesn’t matter where we are, we keep these traditions alive from one generation to another as Christmas dinner is a great moment of familiar union that everyone enjoys sharing with their loved ones in every place around the world.

 
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Posted by on December 24, 2006 in todo lo demás

 

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Ban Animal Testing

Every year countless living creatures suffer and die to determine the safety of consumer products, to seek treatments and cures for human illness, and in an attempt to teach students about human biology. Each year, new personal care and household products are introduced into the marketplace; virtually and long before they appear on the shelves of our local supermarkets all of these products have gone through an extended and complex testing process that leaves millions of innocent animals poisoned, mutilated, burned and sacrificed in cruel tests. Animals should not be used in product testing because it is unnecessary, unreliable, and inhumane.

 

It is believed that law requires animal testing on cosmetics, but this statement has no truthful foundation. According to Karen Lee Stevens, author of a web article on animal testing, there is no law that requires companies to test their personal care and household products on animals. However, companies must conduct appropriate tests to corroborate the safety of their products before selling them to customers. Thanks to advancements in modern technology, scientists are seeking for better ways to test products by using non-animal methods; and although they have concluded that no single non-animal alternative thus far developed can completely replace some animal tests, companies are able to avoid animal testing by relaying on a series of non-animal options that are readily available.

For instance, there is a large number of ingredients already known to be safe, as well as information on historical use and chemical structure; human clinical studies are also valuable and accepted means of testing products. Other types of alternative methods that do not require the use of whole, living animas,l include in-vitro tests, computer modeling, tissue culture, human volunteer trials, and databases of tests that have been already done to avoid duplication. All of these alternative techniques produce fair quicker results, and do not involve animal cruelty.

In addition, lab animal testing produces a tremendous amount of misleading and unreliable results. According to a web article of the Coalition to Abolish Animal Testing (CAAT), animal research is based on a false premise that results obtained through animal experimentation can be applied to the human body; but in reality, animal models are limited, and although animals and humans share superficial similarities, they also are very different. Even those species that seem closely related, may function quite differently at a physiological, psychological, metabolic, anatomic, genetic, and molecular level; so solutions and drugs that affect animals in one way may well affect us differently, and there is no way of predicting what the differences will be.

Far from saving lives; the use of animals as models for humans has injured and killed thousands of people due to drugs and products that were found to be safe for other species. On the contrary, there are drugs that have been withheld from humans because they caused dangerous reactions in animals; but we will never know what promising treatments have been abandoned prematurely just because they did not work on animals.

Apart from the unreliability of animal testing, there is another powerful argument against this practice: the morality of using animals as though they are unfeeling scientific tools. Alix Fano, a New York writer and author of the book Lethal Laws, affirms that a majority of scientists claim that while it is unethical to experiment on humans, it is acceptable to experiment upon non-humans, and the inhumane treatment of animals in tests is due in part to the fact that anesthesia for the alleviation of pain is often not administered since scientists allege that using anesthesia will interfere with test results.

Animals continue to be innocent victims of painful eye and skin irritancy tests; they are force fed or forced to inhale huge quantities of substances like hair dye, face powder, toothpaste and even household cleaners until half of them start displaying symptoms of poisoning and many of them die. In other tests, concentrated substances like shampoo are applied to the eyes of animals (usually rabbits) producing terrible long-lasting pain with swelling, discharge, blistering and destruction of the cornea. Other experiments involve the immobilization of unanaesthetized animals in restraint devices. The animals’ skin is shaved until raw, and the test product such as deodorant or after-shave astringent is applied.

Besides the exposition of animals to extreme pain and as stated by the National Anti-Vivisection Society (NAVS), it is inhumane to confine animals in artificial environments that deprive them of experiencing the ecological role that nature intended for them. Animals are completely vulnerable to whatever the research has in store for them no matter how much pain and suffering is involved.

We are committed to change, but change can only take place with the support of people like you, me and all of us. Animal product testing is unnecessary, unreliable, and inhumane; and you can help animals by learning more about this issue and sharing your thoughts with your family and friends. As consumers, we can make a difference in the lives of innocent animals by purchasing only products labeled “cruelty-free.” Animals should not be viewed as sources and products, but as fellow living creatures who share our planet, and they deserve moral consideration that recognizes their rightful place in the vast and complex web of life.

Feel free to comment back!

Written by: Coraline, April 2002

 
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Posted by on December 13, 2006 in animal testing, animals, biology, controversy, cruelty, humanity

 
 
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