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A tour through Christmas traditions from Middle and South America
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Tamales are available at El Griton Grill with a variety of fillings such as pork, chicken, and vegetarian. The tamales come served on a corn husk, which they are steamed in a pot in. - photo by Austin Steele

When we think of Christmas, there are certain traditions and foods that come to mind — presents on Christmas morning, cookies for Santa and the traditional ham and turkey dinner — but that’s not the case for everyone in Gainesville and Hall County. 

Gainesville’s Latino population is more than 40 percent, and that group isn’t its own bloc. It represents people from Mexico, Venezuela, Cuba, El Salvador and other nations.

That means come Christmas, there will be multiple traditions that are taking place in your backyard. 

Each family is different, but generally families celebrate Christmas on Dec. 24 rather than Dec. 25. They still observe it as Christmas Eve, but they have their Christmas dinner and family activities on Dec. 24. After dinner, the families stay up until midnight, which is when the children begin to open presents. 

Different countries have different traditional meals for Christmas Eve dinner, and here is a list of a few that might be fun to try before the holidays wind down.

Pork in Venezuela

In Venezuela, Christmas meals are centered around pork. One of the most popular dishes is called the hallaca. 

Traditional hallacas are made of corn meal stuffed with pork, raisins, chicken, beef and olives wrapped in a banana leaf. They’re not only a Venezuelan Christmas staple, but a New Year’s Eve staple as well. 

They resemble a tamale, but definitely have their differences. Making hallacas is an all-day event, sometimes two days, and usually gets the whole family involved. The first day usually consists of cutting all of the ingredients, such as olives and capers. The whole family helps cut the meat into squares before mixing all of the ingredients together. 

The second day, usually the mother or grandmother make the “masa,” or the outer cornmeal, then the entire family spends the second day putting the mixture inside of the masa and wrapping it with banana leaves. If you want to try out this Venezuelan food staple, check it out here.

And in Cuba

In Cuba, Pernil Cubano is the centerpiece of the Christmas feast. 

This traditional pork roast is usually accompanied by mojo, a delicious marinade usually made of olive oil, orange juice, salt, pepper, cumin and cilantro. The secret to this delicious recipe is to inject the pork with the mojo to let it marinade from the inside out. 

After injecting the mojo, you spread the rest of the marinade on the outside and allow it to marinate for at least six hours, or overnight. Pernil Cubano is usually served with rice and black beans.

Another popular Cuban Christmas dish is Ropa Vieja, shredded beef served on tortillas with rice.

A cornucopia in Mexico

Christmas traditions in Mexico are very diverse. Different towns have different traditions, but one that seems to go across the board is the tradition of tamales.

For Roberto Figueroa, who lives in Dahlonega, beef, chicken, jalapeno slices, and even sweet tamales are a few favorites. Another favorite is Barbacoa Mexicana, or mexican BBQ. This usually includes carnitas and grilled street corn. One popular drink is Ponche Caliente, or “warm holiday punch.” This spiked punch is made with oranges, apples, cranberries, tea, rum and other ingredients.

The sandwich from El Salvador

Panes con Pavo is the main traditional Christmas dish in El Salvador, said Gainesville native Nicole Aguilar. A turkey sandwich, this meal requires just as much love as the traditional turkey dinner. This sandwich includes select vegetables and a homemade sauce drizzled on top. Panes con Pollo is also popular and is a chicken sandwich, instead of turkey. Tamales Pisques are a salvadoran take on traditional mexican tamales. They are made from seasoned corn masa mixed with refried beans,and wrapped with plantain leaves.

In Columbia, a bowl of soup

Colombia’s most popular Christmas dish is Lechona, which is pork stuffed with rice and peas. Along with ham and turkey, another popular Colombian dish is Ajiaco Bogotano, chicken and potato soup. In this dish, chicken breast, chicken bullion, cilantro, scallions, garlic and corn are simmered along with papa criolla. Buñuelos, a cheesy fritter, is another common dish in Colombia for Christmastime.

Posadas for everyone

Along with the food traditions, Las Posadas is another popular Christmas tradition among Hispanic and Latino people. Las Posadas, or “The Inns,” is a nine-day festival that commemorates the nine-month pregnancy of Mary. This starts on Dec. 16 and lasts until Christmas Eve. During the celebration, two people dress up like Mary and Joseph and go to one house each night for nine nights, until someone lets them “stay in the inn.” 

Accompanied by people dressed as angels and shepherds, each night they go into the house and pray around a Nativity scene. After the prayer, there are Christmas carols, children opening pinatas, and a big dinner. This celebration has been a tradition in Mexico for almost four centuries, but is also celebrated by other Latin American countries.

Lindsay Howard is a student at the University of North Georgia and enjoys learning about Latino food, culture and traditions.

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