Hispanic Christmas more traditional, more family
By Kevin McClintock Carthage Press Dec 23, 2008
Christmas in America has its own deeply rooted traditions — some place a candle in the window; some hang mistletoe and holly about the house; others sing carols, piece together nativity scenes or decorate Christmas trees.
But debates continue to rage over commercialization of America’s most storied holiday. In other words, it’s all about the gifts and the price tags and mountains of shredded tissue paper, and less and less about Dec. 25’s importance — celebrating Jesus’ birthday.
Which is why many Anglo Americans pondering the deterioration of the traditional and cultural Anglo-American Christmas could glean a pointer or two from other cultures, particularly the Hispanic Christmas.
For Hispanics, Christmas remains a predominantly religious holiday. Christmas traditionally lasts from the beginning known as Advent through the Baptism of Jesus. As with most Hispanic cultural traditions, celebration of the Christmas season is primarily molded around family, either immediate or extended.
According to Rebecca Cuevas De Caissie, “Generally, we celebrate the holidays by having fun with our families and dancing from Mariam. We celebrate pretty much the same as anyone else — celebrating the birth of Jesus and renewing family ties. Church service is followed by a huge family dinner. The exchange of gifts doesn’t take place on Christmas Day — it happens on the Feast of the Epiphany (Jan. 6).”
Rev. Francisco Bonilla, pastor of Carthage’s La Iglesia Cristiana Hispanoamericana, says Hispanics have adopted some of the Anglo Christmas customs — what he terms “rowing with the flow.” This has its good and bad aspects.
It’s good, he said, “because we were never in the position to go out and spend a couple of hundred dollars on gifts. That has been a nice experience. But it’s bad in a way that sometimes we forget where we came from and the blessings that we find here.”
He said there are more differences than similarities between an Anglo and Hispanic Christmas. Ironically, the main differences centers around exchanging gifts.
“I’ve spent Christmas time with Anglo families… and it’s kind of cool — it’s a gathering, a greetings, exchanging gifts, eating together, talking a little about this or that — and that’s it,” Bonilla said. “The gifts are very important, the expressions you have to do (when receiving a gift), ‘Oh, this is the perfect gift, this is what I was hoping to get.’”
While exchanging gifts are conducted among Hispanics during Christmas, wrapped presents isn’t the focus of the day’s celebration.
First of all, Bonilla said, “we do not open gifts in front of the ones who give them. The gift is not important. We exchange the gifts, but later we take the gifts back home or we open them up in our own privacy.”
What is important during a Hispanic Christmas, Bonilla continued, is the gathering of friends and family. “We set the gifts apart because the focus is not the gifts but the lessons from (the various) relationships, of our remembrances and memories; lots of laughs and hugs and holding hands and talking and laughing and eating.
“It’s more like a family reunion.”
John Braun, Hispanic minister for Iglesia del Sagrado Corazon de Jesus, located inside Webb City’s Sacred Heart Catholic Church, describes a traditional Hispanic Christmas day, either here in the U.S. or elsewhere.
“On Christmas Eve the family gathers in order to eat a big family meal. Afterwards the family goes to midnight Mass together. After that, everyone goes home and lights a bonfire, listens to music and dances; all of the families are in the streets. The day for giving presents is on Jan. 6, the Feast of the Epiphany when the three kings arrived at the manger in Bethlehem. The children put their shoes outside the door for the kings to leave their presents in. Many Mexican homes don’t have chimneys because of the poverty of the people; thus, Santa Claus can’t come down the chimney with his bag full of toys.”
Here are some of the more traditional and cherished Hispanic Christmas traditions, as explained by Braun.
• Advent wreath – “The Advent wreath, which is a Germanic custom, is a sign of the hope we have in Jesus Christ that he has come, that he is with us, and that he is coming. We light the 4 candles, one for each of the 4 weeks of Advent, as a sign that we are ready for his return.”
• Las Posadas (Joseph and Mary journey) – “The Spanish word “posada” means a dwelling. Through the posadas we re-live the journey of Joseph and Mary, pregnant with Jesus, the Savior of the world, from Nazareth to Bethlehem, as part of the census Caesar Augustus ordered for the Roman Empire. Everyone had to return to their ancestral home in order to register for the Romans who wanted to know how many people they could count on for taxes. It was an extreme insult to the Jewish people. Joseph was of the house of David and this signals to us a fulfillment of the Messianic prophesy that a descendent of David who would sit on his throne forever. As we participate in the trials and sorrows of Mary and Joseph, we also rejoice that God has fulfilled his promise that he would send to humanity a savior. After Mary and Joseph enter the posada, one of our homes, we have sweet bread and hot chocolate.”
• La Novena (9 days of prayer) – “There are two novenas, a) nine days before Dec. 12, the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, we meet for prayers and songs in honor of her appearance to Juan Diego on the site of present day Mexico City in 1531. b) There is another nine days of prayers before Christmas, and it is during these 9 days that we do the posadas.”
• La Misa de Gallo (midnight mass) – “We call Midnight Mass La Misa de Gallo because of the crowing of the rooster at dawn, and the dawn at which we rejoice is that of the new world where Jesus Christ is the king of kings and lord of lords.”
• Las Pastroelas (fireworks) – “La Pastorela is a reenactment of the posada and traditionally there are fireworks at the beginning in order to call the people together — there was a time, and there are still places, where the people don’t have clocks — and at the end in order to rejoice in the fact that God saves us.”
• Traditional Foods – Some of the traditional Hispanic Christmas foods include Tamales, which are very important. Also there are sweet tamales, de chile, de cheese, buñuelos (a pastry) and fruit punch.
While some Americans would love to “turn back time” and embrace some of the lost but more simplistic Christmas customs, “It really isn’t possible to “go back” in order to adopt practices we have forgotten,” Braun said. “People all over the world have kept their traditions, modified them, or rejected them. What tradition enables the family to do is to teach it how to enter the future.”
Of course, both Anglo and Hispanic cultures cherish nativity scenes. The importance of such scenes, Braun said, “lies in the faith that it is a reminder of the birth of God in human flesh.”