Jan 6, 2004

Fireworks at 5 a.m.

I have learned of another Christmas tradition in Venezuela: fireworks at 5 a.m.!

This is called "misa de aguinaldo," which according to my Spanish-English dictionary translates as "Mass of the Christmas bonus." I believe it is in part a celebration of the bonus that Venezuelan workers traditionally receive at year's end, but the fireworks are also supposed to recreate the experience of the shepherds to whom the angels appeared announcing Christ's birth. A sudden burst of light and sound in the sky - it does make sense when you think about it that way. Like Christmas caroling in the U.S., this goes on throughout the month of December.

I learned of this custom one morning at 5 a.m. as I awoke to what I at first thought was gunfire. Luz Maria just laughed at me. We spent the holidays with her family in Barinas. The night before Christmas Eve, Luz Maria's youngest brother, Robert, was married. This involved many of the same cast of characters as at our wedding.

On Christmas Eve, we went to her mother's house after a brief service at Corpus Christi Lutheran Church. Well, it was brief for Venezuela where church services often last two to three hours. This one lasted only about an hour. Of course, on December 27, the church had its annual dinner which lasted from 8 to 11 p.m.

Christmas Day we jumped in the back of Luz Maria's brother Antonio's big Ford pickup truck and headed out to her sister Denise's country retreat near the town of Barinitas. Did I mention that Luz Maria has six living siblings? Everyone was home for the holidays with children, grandchildren and friends.

Barinitas is a haven for musicians, poets, painters and artists of all types. Ernesto, the boyfriend of one of Luz Maria's nieces (I forget which one), treated us to an outdoor performance of classical music on his violin.

A note about names: I've tried to explain that my last name is the German version of Ernesto, but few people see it. Ernst is very hard for them to pronounce. Luz Maria still goes by Luz Maria Henriquez in casual conversation, although her full name is now Luz Maria Henriquez de Ernst (she loves to sign it that way). Venezuelan signatures include at least four names. For men and unmarried women, it's first name, one or more middle names, father's family name and mother's family name. When Luz Maria was single, she was Luz Maria Henriquez Rivero. When women marry, they replace their mother's family name with "de" followed by their husband's father's family name.

In everyday matters, people may choose to introduce themselves with any or all of these names. For example, Luz Maria's brother is Antonio to his co-workers in a water filtration equipment company, but among his family he goes by his middle name, Celestino.

Now if you think that's confusing, consider that in addition to their legal names, many people have a nickname that family and friends use - and the nickname is not necessarily shorter than any of their given names.

I'm just glad David is a very common male name here (although not as common as Jose or Jesus) and no one has a problem pronouncing it.

New Year's Eve we were back at Luz Maria's mother's house. There were fireworks all night and people burned effigies representing the old year. At midnight on New Year's Eve in Venezuela you're supposed to give everyone around you a big hug.

On New Year's Day, Rosa Santana, the mother of Luz Maria's first husband (and grandmother of her children), greeted us both with "God bless you." I was a little surprised by this warm reception, but Luz Maria was shocked. In Venezuela, she explained later, mothers are fiercely devoted to their sons and usually never say anything that would suggest favoring someone else.

The weekend after New Year's Day, we traveled to San Felix to visit Luz Maria's old friend, Pastor Alcides Franco. Once the president of the Lutheran Church of Venezuela, he now operates a grocery store early in the day, then in the evenings ministers to the needs of a tiny congregation in a barrio of San Felix. I was impressed with his integrity, intelligence and compassion.

Sunday morning we attended Ascension Lutheran Church (see photo). With nearly 200 members, it is one of the largest Lutheran churches in Venezuela. It is overshadowed, however, by the huge mosque next door. As we were standing outside the church after the service, the Muslim call to prayer issued from the mosque, a loud wail in Arabic. It seem especially strange to hear it in that setting.

There are three mosques in San Felix (one is under construction). The minaret of the one next to Ascension Lutheran Church is lit up at night and dominates the city's skyline. The mosque being built by the bus terminal will be even larger when completed. The third is a small storefront mosque, but you notice it immediately because of the Arabic lettering on its sign.
I am told that few native Venezuelans in San Felix have been converted to Islam. So far mosques are attended by a small population of immigrants, but international financiers have underwritten the building of the massive structures.

In the evening we went to the barrio church with Pastor Alcides. The church is so small that it does not even have a name, but it is growing in membership.

Now that the holidays are over, it's back to work in Maturin.

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