Dreaming of a white Christmas? Probably not if you're heading to the Southern Hemisphere for the holidays. There, Christmas arrives in the summer, so temperatures are likelier to be between 70 and 100 F than they are a frosty 32, and celebrations are a little different.
A quick survey of books on the subject shows that Australians may head to the beach for cold beer, snacks and barbecued crayfish. In Ethiopia, celebrations feature a pilgrimage to spiritual center Lalibela and a colorful hilltop processional on Christmas Day. In New Zealand, the beautiful red and green pohutakawa tree stands in for the red ribbons, pine boughs and holly of colder climes. And in Venezuela, children host roller-skating parties instead of going sledding.
Anita Cabrera, a 44-year-old Caracas, Venezuela, native who has lived in the United States for nine years, reflects on the traditions and imported customs of her home country.
"One of the biggest differences is we don't have Santa Claus," says Cabrera. "Yes, for the past 10 years, we've see Santa Claus in the malls, but this is because of the influence of North America. It's not our tradition. We have Nino Jesus, or 'Jesus Child,' who brings presents when the kids are sleeping. They expect him the same way kids here expect Santa Claus, with great excitement. We say Santa Claus is a helper of Jesus Child."
But when they do see a Santa, he wears the same red-and-white outfit we see in North America. Cabrera adds, "It looks so hot to wear!"
The same northern influence brought the Christmas tree to Venezuela. Natural trees are primarily imported, says Cabrera, and are very expensive. If homes have a Christmas tree, it's usually artificial. Instead, the traditional and most popular symbol in the home is the nativity scene. Homes without children may have just a few figures set up, but families with children make large displays complete with many accessories, scenery, landscaping and more. Children are allowed to take them apart and play with them, and families gather to pray around them.
Gift giving takes a few forms in Venezuela. Throughout the weeks leading up to Christmas and during the holidays, friends and family often give one another gifts of food, says Cabrera. Two popular gifts are jars of soft candied papaya, and ponche crema, a drink similar to eggnog but made with rum. During this time, special "gaita," or folk music, is played for singing, dancing and caroling door to door.
Then on Christmas Eve, families gather for a big meal, a Catholic mass and gift giving at midnight. On Christmas Day, children discover what one or two very special presents Jesus Child has left them in the night.
Special foods at Christmas are not turkey, mashed potatoes and cranberries, although the idea of making extra for the family to enjoy later as leftovers seems to be the same everywhere. The centerpieces are pernil (roasted bone-in ham), ensalada de gallina (a chicken salad with green apples, celery and carrots), pan de jamon (a soft bread filled with ham and raisins) and, in Cabrera's words, "The big thing is the hallacas (pronounced AH-JAC-KA)."
Hallacas, not to be confused with tamales, are made of cornmeal dough colored a dark yellow and filled with stew of chicken, pork or beef, almonds, olives, red peppers, small onions and more. This tradition is very special because the hallacas take the whole family two days to make, Cabrera explains. Once the hallacas are assembled, they are wrapped in leaves, tied and boiled for an hour.
Speaking with Cabrera, a picture of friends and family gathering for lots of music, food, hugging, singing and especially dancing replaces images of parents and children bundling up in coats, scarves, mittens and boots to go sledding and ice skating after presents and lunch on Christmas Day. It's colorful, noisy, festive -- and warm. And it keeps on going through New Year's Eve, complete with all-night parties and quaint practices designed to bring about good luck, wealth, travel and more in the coming year, until the arrival of the three wise men and the presents they leave in children's stockings on January 6.
Kind of makes a Northerner want to drink it all in, at least once anyway.
Find a photo of and a recipe for hallacas at http://www.justvenezuela.org/venezuela/recipes/hallacas.asp. Note, however, that the Cabrera family recipe is about 10 pages long. They're a lot of work, but worth the effort, she says.
Find one of many recipes for ponche crema at http://www.mapsofworld.com/venezuela/culture/ponche-crema.html.