Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Hispanic traditions hold strong

Church, family are focus of Christmas celebrations

Express Staff Writer

Millie Gaitan-Gonzalez, director of La Alianza, speaks at an event in 2009. Photo by Mountain Express

"When midnight comes on the 24th there, it's like the Fourth of July here."

That's how Millie Gaitan-Gonzalez, director of La Alianza, describes Christmas Eve in her native country of Guatemala.

She said that in many Latin American cultures, Christmas Eve—known as Noche Buena—is celebrated much more heavily than Christmas Day. When midnight comes, fireworks explode through the sky and families gather around the nativity scene and say a prayer before going around the neighborhood, eating and greeting the neighbors and celebrating long into the night.

"Usually, we spend Christmas Day sleeping, because we're so tired," Gaitan-Gonzalez said.

Though Christmas likely won't be celebrated with fireworks locally, the Hispanic community in the Wood River Valley is keeping with Christmas tradition in other ways.

Being with family forms much of the foundation for many Christmas traditions, which can make it difficult for those in the Wood River Valley who have family back in Latin America.

"There are many people who go back to Mexico to have the special days in their own towns," said Maria Salamanca, who works at St, Charles Borromeo Catholic Church in Hailey. "Each town has their own traditions, different kinds of food."

She said those foods can be difficult to re-create here.

But for Gaitan-Gonzales, spending time with her family isn't possible.

"If you don't get together with family, it's very lonely!" she said. "What happens in my family, because I'm so far from them, we call at midnight on Christmas Eve."

Most people try to spend the holidays with family, she said, but when that's not possible, "you go to the nearest person that will take you."

The Christmas season doesn't end until Jan. 6 in many Latin American countries, including Mexico. Children in Mexico get presents on Jan. 6 because this is Epiphany, the day the three wise men are said to have brought gifts to the infant Jesus.

Gaitan-Gonzalez said she didn't celebrate that tradition in Guatemala, but that her family did leave the tree up until Jan. 6.

"That's a long holiday season," she said, especially considering the four weeks of Advent that precede Christmas.

Overall, she said, many of the Hispanic traditions may be more religiously based than other cultures, but that captures the true spirit of the season.

"Most people try to keep the religious part out of it, but it's a religious holiday," she said. "If you take the religion out of it, what do you have?"

Many of the Latino traditions are Catholic due to the Spanish colonization of much of Central and South America.

"The Spanish did a good job imposing their religion on us!" she said.

As a result, one of the first and major events during the Christmas season is the celebration of Our Lady of Guadalupe on Dec. 12. This holy day is a celebration of the appearance of the Virgin Mary to a peasant named Juan Diego, asking him to build a church for her in Mexico City.

Virginal visions are common in many Catholic cultures, but Salamanca said this one was "peculiar."

"The story says he saw the Virgin with dark skin," Salamanca said, an apparition known as La Moreñita.

"She was not a traditional white Virgin," Gaitan-Gonzalez said. "She's more like the people from Mexico than the people from Europe."

Our Lady of Guadalupe is celebrated at St. Charles' every year, according to Salamanca, with two masses, song and dance. She said about 300 people generally attend the events.

"All this is traditional," she said. "This is something we want to show people here in the United States, something we brought from Mexico."

Another Catholic-based Hispanic tradition is Las Posadas, a nine-day celebration that occurs from Dec. 16-24. Traditionally, there is a procession around a neighborhood where people bring statues of Mary and Joseph around to one house each night, re-enacting the Holy Family's search for a place to stay in Bethlehem.

However, the nature of the procession makes it difficult to re-create in the Wood River Valley, Gaitan-Gonzalez said.

"People here don't do it the same way as they do it in Latin American countries, because it's warm there," she said. "Because it's so cold here, they just don't have the moveable element."

Salamanca said she celebrates the tradition in her own home. But with forecast wind chills in the negatives on the first night of Las Posadas this year, Gaitan-Gonzalez said, most people are likely to skip the procession and meet at houses or churches to celebrate each night.

Still, she said, the spirit of the tradition isn't lost.

"It's all about eating and being together," she said.

Katherine Wutz:

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