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Christmas is in the Air.

During the past several weeks the season around the capital has began to change. I am not saying it has been cooler, nor do I expect to see any snow this year. I am referring to the country’s metamorphosis from tropical Caribbean life to a tropical Christmas. Christmas is in the air.

In the Dominican Republic Christmas is the most celebrated season of the year, which is amazing because the whole country shuts down for Holy Week ( or Easter). When the weather starts to get cold up north, the Dominican Republic also feels the holiday spirit, but in a little different way. Typical Christmas displays with lights and traditional North-American style Christmas trees are common. The country, however, has its own Christmas twists. In this article I will write about the Dominican traditions, things like: hand made figurines; grapes and apple vendors; holiday spirit; Christmas spirits; and Holiday visitors. (
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Some of the most visible differences in the country are found in the traditional Christmas displays often seen across all of North America. The differences with the displays in the Dominican Republic is the simple fact that the Dominican Republic recognizes the holiday for what it is—a religious holiday celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ. This does not mean that Dominicans shy away from the use of Santa Claus or reindeers. Many displays do contain Santa Claus and Reindeer, but the majority focus on the religious side of the holiday. There are many displays of nativity scenes. There are displays of the kings. There are displays with Saints and other Catholic influences. This is because the country recognizes the religious origins of the holiday. Most Dominicans are Christians and the celebration of
Navidad is an expression of their faith.

Another difference between a traditional American Christmas and Christmas in the Dominican Republic is that the Dominican Christmas is not nearly as commercialized as it is in the United States. Dominican children do not receive gifts until the day of the kings, which is January the 5th. Now this is not to say there are no gifts given for Christmas. The entire Christmas season is full of gift giving. The government, in fact, recognizes the need for gifts to be given by requiring all employers to pay their employees a double salary for the month of December. This double salary allows a little extra spending. The double salary also allows everyone to have a little more holiday cheer. Most Dominicans spend a little more freely during the holidays, due to this double salary.
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In addition to the traditional Christmas displays with trees and lights, the major cities have stands selling hand woven statues. These statues are woven out of small trees, vines, and lengths of grass. The statues are made in the shapes of most common Christmas figures—nativity scenes, Christmas trees, reindeer, as well as wreaths and other objects commonly seen for sale during the holiday season. To keep with the island’s love of color, these items are often painted various colors, particularly red, green and white. Now, to be honest, I do not really know who uses these figurines. They are rather large and I have not seen them placed in many front yards. I can only believe someone is buying them or the stands would not sell them.

One of my favorite Dominican Christmas traditions are the many parties. I really enjoy seeing the people join together with their friends and family to spend time together. I also really enjoy the food! Whenever there is a group of Dominicans in any one location for longer than a few minutes there is sure to be some sort of food, and of course drinks. In addition to all of the typical or normal foods, some of the most common holiday treats include fresh grapes and apples. I have no idea why these are Christmas treats, but they are a major part of the holiday festivities. During the months before Christmas many fresh fruit stands are established to just sell holiday fruit. I remember vividly the plates of grapes, nuts, and candies passed around at parties last year. Just thinking about all of these great items makes me look forward to partaking in more holiday festivities in the weeks to come.

In addition to all of the things that are very different and easy to distinguish, there are some aspects of Christmas that are probably not readily apparent to most first timers. These items include the increase in the number of Dominican visitors. US government statistics state that there are well over a million individuals of Dominican origin currently residing in the United States. The majority of these individuals have extensive family ties within the Dominican Republic and many use the holidays as a time to reunite with family.

It is not uncommon for a Dominican living in the United States to return to the Dominican Republic for a month during the holidays. These individuals are aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, and often moms and dads to people living in the Dominican Republic. They spend their days visiting relatives, talking about life and what has happened since their last visit. They are often viewed as wealthy because they return with gifts and buy many things for their family living in the Dominican Republic. I suspect that this annual pilgrimage is something they save for and yearn for the entire year.

I have several Dominican uncles who have lived in the US for more than 25 years. They, however, return to the island a couple times each year to spend time with family and friends. When they return all of their old acquaintances stop by to hang out. These visits turn into daily events that last the entire length of their stay. There are lots of card games, many stories exchanged, and as one would expect more than a few rounds of drinks. In addition to being in a festive mood, visiting relatives often purchase expensive liquor in the airports to share with friends and family during their visits. These high quality beverages are a sought after treat for many of the locals, who cannot afford to spend $50 on a bottle of whisky.

I remember during one of my first years in the Dominican Republic one of my (at the time future) uncles visited for a month just before the Holidays. During his visit he reserved a club and invited the town to come and spend the day. There were several hundred people in attendance at the event. On our way to the event I noticed many trucks loaded with occupants. I also saw countless
motos filled with passengers headed to the club. It was a day many of the locals would not experience many times. To eat there was roasted pig, chickens, goat, and of course beef. At the time I thought this guy must be loaded. I mean how does someone rent a club and then invite everyone to partake?

I later learned my uncle was not independently wealthy; he works in a factory in New Jersey. He had planned this reunion in the Dominican Republic for a long time and wanted to show all of his friends and family how much he missed them. He was the king that day and during every encounter I have had with him ever since he has been just as giving. To me it is amazing the amount of emotion and giving visiting Dominicans show to their friends and family.

Now, keep in mind as the number of “wealthy” visitors increases so does the mood of festivity. If you ask a local about the Christmas season they will tell you it is a time to party. There is very little actual work done between the 15
th of December and the second week of January. This means if you are planning to do business or get something done by the government you had better get it done before December, or you will be waiting until February.

The mood of the country changes so significantly to the party mode that the government actually changes the laws each year to enable the bars to stay open all night. I do not know the exact dates but the end of December is so full of parties the city literally parties around the clock. If you want a beer at 7:00 in the morning… no problem.

One of the climaxes of the holiday season is the annual New Years Celebration. I attend a family party with my family’s closest friends. At the event I attend there is just more of the usual—eating, dancing, talking, singing, and drinking (but I don’t know if they are done in that order…). There are also many public events and concerts around the country. The New Years Celebration is a great climax for the season.

Along with the increase in Dominican visitors, there are also a lot more tourist visitors. The holiday season marks the beginning of the tourist season. The airports are busier during November and December, with most flights fully booked. For the tourists the Caribbean holiday is something very unique. Eighty-degree days and wonderful breezes make it the perfect time to get out of the cold. Hotels and resorts are booked to capacity with tourists enjoying the sand and sun during a traditionally snowy holiday.

As a note of caution, tourists are in my opinion always viewed as easy opportunities for locals to make a few extra dollars (or Pesos). This is not something unique to the Dominican Republic. Tourists are not subjected to any more
crime in the Dominican Republic than most other places. Tourists just need to be aware that they are in a new area and they need to be more vigilant about safety, which is nothing different from visiting Miami or New York.

As you plan your holiday travels, remember that Christmas is a time for giving. In the Dominican Republic Christmas is also a time for family, friends, and reunions. When you start to notice the season change remind yourself that this is the only time of year the poorest people in the Dominican Republic have a little extra. They get to eat a little better. They buy nicer drinks. They get a few new clothes.

I hope you enjoy the time you have with family and friends. I also hope you are able to enjoy some of the Dominican Christmas festivities. It is an amazing time of year and Christmas is definitely in the air.

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Best Wishes,
Ross Weber - Dominican Republic