I’ve always loved the Christmas season, and I have my mom and my auntie to thank for this. My mom brought us up with her Venezuelan traditions, and my auntie added a new tradition while we were living in New York City. I can’t recall which is the first Christmas I actually have memories of, but they were all pretty similar and bring back cherished memories.
I was born in New York City and while we lived there, come early December, we would head over to Corona, Queens with my mom to purchase banana or plantain leaves, which we used to make hallacas.
Hallacas are a traditional Venezuelan food around Christmas time – they have guiso (a meat stew mixture of pork, chicken and beef), hard-boiled egg slices, potato slices, sliced peppers, capers, raisins or prunes, and olives inside corn meal dough. They are wrapped in the banana/plantain leaves, then in aluminum foil, and tied up with string or yarn.
Making hallacas is quite a production and I always loved being my mom’s helper. She would cook the stew for a few hours and in the meantime wash the leaves and prep the other ingredients. Once everything was ready, my mom would put on gaitas (popular folk music from Venezuela), pour herself a glass of wine, and we’d set up a production line on our kitchen table.
I remember she always started with the leaf, the dough, and the stew, and I got to add the other ingredients. My mom would then roll and fold them up, then I would get to wrap them in aluminum foil and tie them up with white string. We would use a red yarn to tie them if she made some spicy ones for my dad, or green yarn if she used less ingredients for the kids (we didn’t like capers).
I remember making as many as 100 hallacas at times! My mom would freeze them, and they would serve as a meal anytime during the month. To this day, my mom still makes her hallacas every year, but now that my parents have an empty nest, her new assistant is my dad :).
Our Christmas celebration all happened on Christmas Eve. The day would be spent cleaning and cooking. After that was done we would get showered and dressed in our Christmas clothes and go to Christmas Eve mass (which became midnight mass as we got older), come home to have dinner, and then open presents up at midnight. Interestingly, somehow Santa would always manage to come to our house while we were at church to leave our presents. The next day would be spent sleeping in, relaxing, playing with our new toys, and eating leftovers.
My auntie added a city Christmas “tour”. I remember getting on the subway at 71st St./Continental Avenue in Queens and going into Manhattan each December with my auntie, my mom, and my two younger brothers. We would get off at 34th St./Herald Square and the first stop would be Macy’s, where my auntie used to work.
We would walk around to check out the Christmas displays in the windows and then head upstairs to get in the long line to visit Santa. Before we left Macy’s we would head down to “The Cellar” and she would buy each of us an elephant ear cookie.
Next stop would be 5th Avenue, where we would go see the ice skaters at Rockefeller Center (we never got to ice skate and later on I realized it was because neither my mom or auntie knew how to ice skate), and check out some more window displays at Lord & Taylor and Saks Fifth Avenue. Even though this was all over 20 years ago, I can still vividly remember seeing steam coming out of sewer covers on our walks and recall the smell of the street corner vendors selling hot pretzels and roasted chestnuts.
I started writing this post thinking about the excitement of Christmas through my oldest daughter’s eye. Actually writing it has made me fondly look back on my own childhood Christmas memories. But, it has also made me a little bit sad when I realize that although I grew up with traditions of my immigrant parents in the U.S., I have acculturated to the American way quite a bit in the traditions I have started with my children.
For example, since I live on the opposite coast that my mom and all of our family lives on, I have not felt quite ready to take on the production line tradition, of making hallacas. And to be honest, my gringo husband isn’t too crazy about them – what would I do with 100 hallacas!? My kids are also still too young (4 years old and 8 months old) to be able to stay awake until midnight on Christmas Eve, so we don’t go to midnight mass and we open presents on Christmas morning. Now I probably sound like I have an excuse for everything 🙂
Despite the break in my mom’s Venezuelan traditions, I guess I just celebrate Christmas a little differently…it’s still just as fun because I get to experience it with my children and see the magic of the season through their eyes. I had great fun helping my daughter write her letter to Santa. And she is SO excited about going downtown next week to look at a gingerbread house display and ride the “Christmas” carousel. Last night she reminded me that we need to bake cookies soon so that we can leave some out for Santa and maybe some carrots and celery for his reindeer. I just hope that one day they, too, will look back on this time of year with treasured memories.
Are there any Christmas traditions you are sharing with your children that you were brought up with? Are there any traditions you have incorporated into the season? Please share!
This is an original post for World Moms Blog by Eva Fannon. Eva can be found on Twitter @evafannon.
Photo credit to José Orsini http://www.flickr.com/photos/elkilla/4179534542/. This photo has a creative commons attribution share alike license.