El Salvador Christmas

Family is first

Salvadorans, like most if not all Latin Americans, value family and put it first during Christmas celebrations.

Family gatherings begin at about 7:00 pm (on Christmas Eve), when members start arriving at a determined home, mostly the grandparents’.

A must to bring along are fireworks, which vary from so-called “estrellitas” or glimmer sticks for children, to huge concoctions enough to make you seek refuge after lighting the wick. These last ones are used around midnight, when everything and everyone is in a festive frenzy with laughter and hugs for the birth of Baby Jesus.

While children are out on the street having the best of times with the fireworks, adults are busy enjoying the food and conversation. Christmas may very well be the one time of the year when the whole family is together and “catching up” is in order. Friends drop in to spread good wishes and are invited to stay over for dinner, even if it is known that most are doing their “traditional route” through friends’ homes before arriving to their own family’s celebration.

Dinner time may vary. In some cases, families gather around the table at about 11:00 pm. In others, the meals are served at about 1:00 am. The difference in times is related to the Misa de Gallo or “Rooster Mass”, which is the name for the Christmas Mass which begins at midnight. Some families choose to eat before the Mass, others after it. On the way to Mass, it is usual to hear the loud noise of fireworks.

Dinner menus vary as does the times for dinner. Upper and upper middle class families may enjoy a more “Americanized” menu of turkey and ham, while traditional middle class and lower strata families may have chicken or even special homemade tamales.

Just before saying goodbye to the family, a tradition is to place the Baby Jesus figure as part of the Nativity Scene under the Christmas Tree. Even when the Nativity Scene may be set under the tree a month before, the figure is not placed until after midnight of this day, symbolizing that Christ is now born. The Nativity Scene is very important to some families and it is a tradition in itself. Some may even get together to prepare it as a family project, and dedicate a whole space in their living room to it.

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