12/25/05 — Christmas has different focus in other nations

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Christmas has different focus in other nations

By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on December 25, 2005 2:07 AM

Miguel Martez remembers traveling home after late Christmas Mass in a small town near Mexico City as a boy. When his family reached the house, they gathered around a handcrafted nativity scene.

"We would watch Mama place the Baby Jesus in his manger," Martez said. "This is the most important part of Christmas."

Christians across the globe are celebrating Christmas this weekend in very different ways.

In some countries, Santa Claus will be coming to town, showering children with gifts, hoping not to get stuck in a slim chimney. In others, the religious background of the holiday reigns supreme.

In Mexico, Martez said, Christmas celebrations have little in common with those he has seen in the United States. He has been a citizen for 16 years, and said although he loves living in this country, he misses his small hometown every year in late December.

Unlike a typical Christmas in the U.S. where children rush downstairs to find presents under the tree, feast with their families and then play with their new toys, in Mexico, Martez said, religious ceremony is the central focus of the holiday.

"The presents, we didn't even get on Christmas Day, but on the Holy Night," Martez said. "In Mexico, Christmas is about the birth of Jesus."

Martez added detailed, handcrafted nativity scenes are more prevalent in Mexican neighborhoods than Christmas trees.

"Every family in my neighborhood made a nativity scene," he said. "All people get to show how they see the birth of Jesus."

Martez said the Christmas season in Mexico is filled with prayer, reflection and honoring the Lord. But children still get to have a little fun on Christmas Eve, called "Holy Night" in Mexico.

After prayer, children and parents gather for a large party. Dozens of piñatas hang from trees, filled with fruit, candy and nuts. While the children play, adults enjoy seasonal beverages and food.

Martez said he remembers swinging fiercely at one particularly colorful piñata when he was 11, bashing the candy-stuffed horse with a long stick -- blindfolded.

"That horse was very hard to break," he said. "But it was filled with candy and oranges when it finally fell."

Across the ocean, Christians in Italy also celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ differently than Americans.

Sal and JoJo Coppola, owners of Pupetta's Italian Restaurant and Pizzeria, said their home country has begun to change its traditions and that many now celebrate Christmas as Americans do.

There are still those, however, who stick to the old ways, they said.

According to Italian legend, La Befana, not Santa Claus, visits homes on Christmas Eve.

"La Befana is a magical witch who brings candy," JoJo said.

On Christmas Eve, children lay their shoes out for the witch. If they have been good, the shoes will be filled with candy and other treats the next morning. For those on La Befana's naughty list, there will be nothing but coal.

Another tradition that differs from an American Christmas is the food served on Dec. 25. While most Americans feast on ham or turkey, the Italians eat capitone, a large eel that can be served roasted, baked or fried.

Sal added that in Italy, people don't hesitate when it comes to spreading Christmas cheer. While in some part of the U.S., political correctness has fueled a debate over saying "Merry Christmas," he said, in Naples, the holiday is more "in your face."

"You feel it right in the streets," he said. "Christmas is everywhere."