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The Value of Christmas Traditions

A Letter from Ian and Jhanderys Dotel Vellenga, serving in Nicaragua

Christmas 2019

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Like a lot of people, I look forward to Christmas. For me, it is one of the most meaningful times of the year. But being from the Caribbean, our Christmas celebrations are a little different than the typical American one. Christmas decorating for us usually starts in the month of October. I know, it sounds outrageous … many of you would think that it is as crazy as talking about pumpkin spice anything in August. But in our defense, we do not have Halloween or Thanksgiving to get through before the Christmas season, and most importantly, we do not have any significant changes in our weather, which means that it just remains hot. However, if you think about it, hot weather is more bearable with Christmas music and beautiful twinkling lights to look at. Another difference in our traditions is that our family meal is eaten on the 24th of December instead of the 25th (I guess we cannot wait one more day to have delicious food.)

The biggest difference must be that, as kids, we didn’t get any presents until January 6th, which is when we believe the Three Wise Men visited baby Jesus, bringing with them gifts and blessings from faraway lands. No shade on Santa Claus … well … maybe a little … because even though he arrives the 25th he is not even in the Bible (yeah, I said it). So instead of milk and cookies, you will find candies for the Magi, along with grass and water for the camels to refresh themselves with after a long walk through the desert, under our beautifully decorated plastic green pine trees.

I love Christmas traditions, and this year we had the opportunity to discover several new ones in Nicaragua. One is “La gritería” which takes place December 7th and honors “La Purisima,” which is one of the many ways in which they refer to Mary. This is a boisterous and noisy tradition that pays homage to the young mother of Jesus. For this event, thousands of people around the country go from house to house singing Christmas carols about the beloved Virgin. The houses where the carolers perform reward the singers by offering them treats, like the very popular rosquillas (doughnut-like crackers), leche de burra (a candy called donkey’s milk), other sweets, and of course, fresh seasonal fruits.

Christmas Greetings.

But my favorite tradition so far is “Las Posadas,” which means the hospice or lodge. Churches in the U.S. often have a traditional Nativity play, or a very popular alternative like “A Charlie Brown Christmas” during this time. But what if instead for only lasting one day, the play lasted for nine days? (Yup, that’s right.) Las Posadas starts on December 16th and ends on the 24th. During Las Posadas, community members, but mainly children, dress as Mary, Joseph and some shepherds, and travel around their neighborhood from house to house, being refused lodging (posada), and being answered from inside of the house with popular folk songs denying them entry until the ninth day, when they are finally welcomed to a lodge for the birth of Jesus. This day there’s a great celebration and the whole community comes together to put on or watch the play, which recognizes the refusal of people to receive “others,” the hardship of Mary’s pregnancy, and the miracle of Jesus’ birth.

Christmas Eve is especially significant in Nicaragua. It is celebrated with a family dinner, the giving of small gifts like fruits, candies and toys for the kids. Fireworks are usually set off around midnight to celebrate Jesus’ birth, adding to the excitement of the celebration. The 25th is usually a day of rest after all the eating, celebration, and festivities of the night before in which people usually visit family and friends, or just relax in their houses and share leftovers with their neighbors.

From what our Nicaraguans colleagues and friends have told us, the New Year’s celebration in Nicaragua can be understood as a combination of Thanksgiving and New Year’s in the United States. Families gather for dinner to give thanks for the blessings received in the past year and toast to the new one to come. The Nicaraguan Christmas has deep and profound religious roots. December holidays provide an opportunity for families to spend time together, to visit old friends, and to celebrate. This year Christmas is a little different: it is filled with a little sadness, worries, but also a lot of expectations. In this past year, people have to deal, not only with a lot of challenges in their everyday lives and economic problems, but also losses and separations. Many of those familiar traditions will not feel the same anymore. Perhaps they will not bring the same sense of joy they used to provide. Many family structures have changed, and Christmas will have a different meaning in many ways. Families will adopt some new traditions, while some old ones will disappear because, being more than just festivities and holidays, Christmas is about the people we look forward to celebrating and spending time with.

More often than not, we get distracted by the lights, the beautiful displays at malls, and the noises of parties, celebrations, and other social gatherings, and forget to remember that Christmas is really about the mystery of God becoming man, and the adversity and sacrifice that Mary and Joseph went through during their journey. We need to ponder the love of God, who gave us the best gift of all, salvation through Jesus Christ. So yes! Enjoy those Christmas traditions you love, and maybe start or add some new ones. Love your family, friends, and all “your neighbors,” but never forget that the spirit of this season is about sharing love and opening our hearts, minds, and often our doors to those in need and in search of protection and shelter.

We thank you for your support and gifts during this year. We have no words to express how grateful we are for your interest in our ministry and the people of Nicaragua. May the joy and peace of Christmas be with you all through the new year. We wish you a season filled with warmth, hope, and abundant love.

Paz, amor y felicidad para todos en esta navidad.

Jhan and Ian

Creative_Commons-BYNCNDYou may freely reuse and distribute this article in its entirety for non-commercial purposes in any medium. Please include author attribution, photography credits, and a link to the original article. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDeratives 4.0 International License.

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