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Food, family big part of Venezuela natives Christmas
Enrique Montiel, left, enjoys a festive lunch with sister-in-law Cecilia Montiel, brother Oscar, right, and nieces Sabrina, 13, middle right, and Silvia, 17, on Sunday at his Gainesville home. Enrique moved from Maracaibo, Venezuela, to Gainesville in 1995. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

A world of tradition

Those who call Hall County home come from varied backgrounds, with different beliefs, traditions and cultures. This Christmas season, The Times celebrates that diversity with a look at seven individuals who have come here from different countries. Over the next week, we'll explore Christmas traditions from their home countries and also talk about what has brought them to North Georgia.


Aside from his work on the annual "Christmas is One Language" concert, Enrique Montiel's holiday preparations in Gainesville are low-key - maybe a wreath on the door, but that's about it.

Instead, for Montiel, the celebration really begins when he arrives in his native Venezuela.

He and his siblings and their children will descend on Montiel's childhood home in Maracaibo, the country's second-largest city. Montiel, 51, expects some 30 people total will fill the house.

"It's a tradition my parents started and I guess everybody feels like we have to migrate back there," he said. "... It's noisy and tasty, as we have everybody's favorite foods. We play music, dance and sing. It's very entertaining."

Montiel, who plans to leave Wednesday for about 10 days, and his family will celebrate with foods Americans are familiar with, such as ham and turkey.

But there Venezuelan specialties, including the hallaca, which Montiel described as like a "big tamale, stuffed with stew, wrapped in banana leaves, tied up and boiled. It's very laborious but tasty."

And then there's the native gaita.

"It's very lively music that people dance to," Montiel said. "We also do carols, including (ones in) Venezuelan and Spanish. Venezuela was a Spanish colony, so there is still a lot of heritage that we kept."

As one of seven brothers and sisters, he remembers an exciting and inspiring time at Christmas in his early years.

"There was always a lot of preparation for (the holiday)," he said. "My mother would read stories to us, preparing us to understand what Christmas was about."

The family also worked on a nativity scene every year.

"It was the same figurines, but the theme would be different," Montiel recalled.

All the activities and festivities centered on the holiday's significance - the birth of the savior, Jesus Christ.

"We knew the reason for the season since we were little kids," he said.

Montiel moved to Gainesville in 1995 after earning a master's degree in poultry diseases from the University of Delaware. Previously, he had been schooled in Venezuela and practiced as a veterinarian for eight years.

Montiel has worked for Merial Select since his arrival in Gainesville, founding the Gainesville Multicultural Committee in 1997. The group, which he chairs, puts on the annual Christmas concert at Gainesville First United Methodist Church on Thompson Bridge Road. The concert draws 600 to 700 people every year.

"It has become a tradition," Montiel said. "People have come to expect it."

He said he has tried to play the role of host for his family's annual Christmas celebration.

"But my parents are in their 80s are afraid of the winter here," Montiel said.

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