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Mary, Joseph and some shepherds in Nicaragua

Caribbean-born mission co-worker shares differences in Dominican, Nicaraguan and American Christmas traditions

by Jhanderys Dotel Vellenga, Mission Connections | Special to Presbyterian News Service

Mission co-workers Ian and Jhanderys Dotel Vellenga serve in Nicaragua with the Council of Protestant Churches in Nicaragua (CEPAD), which works to improve the lives of economically impoverished communities by promoting justice and peace. (Contributed photo)

Like a lot of people, I look forward to Christmas. It is one of the most meaningful times of the year. But being from the Caribbean, our Christmases are a little different than the typical American celebrations.

For Dominicans, Christmas decorating usually starts in October. I know, it sounds outrageous. Many people would think it crazy to talk 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.

Another difference in our traditions is that our family meal is eaten on Dec. 24 instead of Dec. 25 (I guess we cannot wait one more day to have delicious food).

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

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 Dec. 7 and honors “La Purisima,” 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.

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 lasting only one day, the play lasted for nine days?

Las Posadas begins on Dec. 16 and ends on Dec 24. During Las Posadas, community members, mainly children, dress as Mary, Joseph and some shepherds, and travel around their neighborhood from house to house, are refused lodging (posada), and then answered from inside 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 children; and fireworks around midnight to celebrate Jesus’ birth. On Dec. 25, when Americans are celebrating Christmas, Nicaraguans are relaxing in their houses or sharing leftovers with their neighbors, friends and family.

From what our Nicaraguan colleagues and friends have told us, the New Year’s celebration in Nicaragua can be understood as a combination of Thanksgiving and New Year in the U.S.

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 in Nicaragua is a little different: it is filled with some sadness and worries, but also hope. In the past year, people have had to deal with many challenges in their everyday lives and economic issues as well as 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. We must remember that Christmas is really about the mystery of God becoming a 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.

Mission co-workers Ian and Jhanderys Dotel Vellenga serve in Nicaragua with the Council of Protestant Churches in Nicaragua (CEPAD), which works to improve the lives of economically impoverished communities by promoting justice and peace. Jhan, a native of the Dominican Republic, and her husband Ian work alongside their colleagues and supervisors at CEPAD to deepen their connection and understanding of doing mission together. Subscribe to their letters.

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