In Venezuela, Christmas is celebrated with a number of religious and traditional customs. As a predominantly Catholic country, Christmas festivities celebrate the birth of the child Jesus. The religious celebrations begin on the 16th of December with masses said every morning until December 24th, when the religious service is held at midnight (Misa de Gallo).
The main celebration takes place on Christmas Eve, "Noche Buena" as it is called in Spanish. Families get together to enjoy the traditional holiday meal: "hallacas," "pan de jamón," "dulce de lechoza." The pan de "jamón" is a long bread filled with cooked ham and raisins. The "dulce de lechoza" is a dessert made of green papaya and brown sugar, slowly cooked for hours and served cold.
Many homes put up a Christmas tree but the most authentic Venezuelan custom is to display a nacimiento (Nativity scene). A more sophisticated nacimiento is the pesebre. This represents an entire region with mountains, hills, plains and valleys. The central point is a replica of the manger at Bethlehem. The structure is a framework covered with canvas and painted accordingly. Often, the pesebre becomes a real work of art.
On December 25 children awake to find their gifts around the Nacimiento or the Christmas tree. Tradition has it that it is the Child Jesus who brings gifts to the Venezuelan children instead of Santa Claus.
The Christmas festivities come to an official closing on January 6, the Day of the Reyes Magos (the three wise kings who came to visit Mary and the infant Jesus), when children again receive toys and candies. Christmas is, above all, the main holiday during which Venezuelan families get together and rejoice.
Music plays an important role in the celebrations. The traditional songs of this period are called aguinaldos. In the old days the aguinalderos (singers of aguinaldos) would go from home to home singing their songs and playing traditional instruments such as the cuatro (a small, four strings guitar), the maracas (rattle) and the furruco (a small, elongated drum with a wooden stick in the middle. The movement of the stick slightly indented on the drums leather is what produces the sound).