In Venezuela, the Christmas season is one of the most important times of the year. While it is always a special time in South America, the holiday is especially important in Venezuela.
Christmas is nearly a month-long event with many people starting the celebrations on December 4. And on December 16th families bring out their pesebre, an elaborate depiction of the nativity scene. However, the Christmas celebrations reach their peak around December 21 and continue until Christmas Day on December 25.
There are nine carol services for Christmas and Venezuelans attend at least one of these masses to worship at dawn. From the large city of Caracas to the smaller rural areas, people rise in the early mornings and travel by foot as most roads are closed off. No alarm clocks are needed as the sound bells and firecrackers fill the early morning air to let everyone know it's time for church.
The final service is on Christmas Eve or Nochebuena de Navidad, a very important mass. Afterwards, families return home to eat a large meal and exchange presents. Presents are usually opened on Christmas Eve and for some families, Christmas Eve is even more important than Christmas Day.
On Christmas Day, families attend the Misa de Gallo or Mass of the Rooster. It was given this odd name because of its 5 a.m. calling time. Then many take to the streets for Christmas celebrations and to visit family and friends.
Food always plays an important role in South American holidays and Venezuelan food plays an important role in the Christmas tradition.
The single most important dish is the hallacas, also known as tamales in other areas. A balance of sweet and savory, hallacas are traditional Venezuelan meat pies with a cornmeal crust that are wrapped in banana leaves and boiled for a couple of hours. Fillings include meat with raisins, olives, green and red peppers, capers, and pickled vegetables.
They are only eaten at Christmas because they take a long time to make and often require the entire family pitching in on the cooking. Many will boast that their mother or grandmother makes the best hallaca in the neighborhood or even the country.
Other typical Christmas dishes include pan de jamon, a loaf of bread filled with cooked ham and raisins, dulce de lechoza, a cold dessert made from green papaya and brown sugar, and ponche crema, an eggnog drink that can be homemade or bought in supermarkets.
Traditional Venezuelan decorations are found in all homes with the most important being the nativity scene which depicts the Baby Jesus in the manger. Some families are much more elaborate in their decorations and create an entire diorama featuring the region. Pieces are often passed down from generation to generation and are considered a very special part of Christmas.
Modern decorations are also common and many homes may have an artificial spruce complete with fake snow in honor of North American Christmas traditions. Unlike the tradition of Santa Claus, in Venezuela, children receive presents from Baby Jesus himself and occasionally St. Nicholas. In the past, presents were placed by the pesebre, but now it's becoming more common to find them under the tree.
Many homes are decorated with Christmas lights, but some are painted to show their Christmas tree. The murals are painted up to a month before Christmas Day to set the tone for the new year and prepare for the festivities.
One of the unique elements to Christmas in Venezuela are the gaitas, traditional Christmas songs that combine a Latin culture with African influence. It is common for people to refer to a gaitero rhythm which reflects the joy of the season. It is very common to hear this traditional music all throughout Venezuela during the holidays.