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