Empty Suitcases and Traveling Hallacas

Pedro spoke to people from North America to Australia, to see how they experience the complexities of the holidays that in many ways define what means to be Venezuelan

This year, like many others in recent history, millions of Venezuelans will spend the holiday season abroad. This is a complicated time for the emerging Venezuelan diaspora. The classic traditions like making hallacas or opening gifts get intertwined with feelings of nostalgia for our relatives back home. However, despite these feelings, the celebrations continue and evolve as we adapt to new countries and our traditions are passed down to the next generation. 

The first thing to notice is that this globalization of the Venezuelan holiday season is a relatively new phenomenon. Those who have spent more time living and working abroad used to travel back home in December, but as the political and economic situation, plus the pandemic, made international travel difficult, they started to celebrate the holidays in their new homes. This was the case for Raul Sánchez Urribari. “When I moved to South Carolina, traveling from there to Maracaibo was relatively easy. The trip would take 6-7 hours and, some years, I would even travel twice a year.” After moving to Melbourne, Australia, things became more complicated. “The first two years, I was able to travel to Venezuela for a month, but slowly the trips became shorter.” Then, he started to spend the holidays in Melbourne and had not been able to travel back to Venezuela for 6 years. “Having to be away from my parents and not seeing them has been very difficult.”

Ricardo Portillo, who lives north of Houston, tells a similar story. “I left in 2003 for a job opportunity. I spent four years in Mexico, and two in Argentina. Then, I moved here for a new position and when it was time to go back to Venezuela, the company no longer operated in the country, so I found another opening in the company and continued living here.“ Like Raul, he would always try to go home. “Right after I left, I would always travel back for the holidays, but I eventually I did have to start spending Christmas and New Year away.”

Spending that first holiday season abroad also means some discoveries. Some of the themes, like family, togetherness, and a big meal remain the same across the world, but these Venezuelans and their families have also learned about the unique peculiarities of the countries in which they now live. In some instances, that might look like an extended holiday season. Milagros Hernández, who has been living in the South of Mexico since 2010, explained that in her new home the holiday season begins much earlier than people often think: “The holidays really begin after Día de los Muertos (November 2nd), which serves as a preamble. From there, the country is full of color and sounds that carry over to the day of the Virgin of Guadalupe (December 12th), which is almost like Christmas. Then you have the 24th, the 31st, and the celebration continues until January 6th, Three Kings’ Day.” However, in the Middle East, the season looks completely different. In Saudi Arabia, for example, “Christmas celebrations get reduced to what Western communities do in our neighborhoods” said Pablo Rojas, who has been living in the country since 2013.

In the southern hemisphere, the holiday season occurs in the middle of summer. The familiar themes remain, but the celebrations take a different shape, like in Australia. “On New Year’s Eve, many leave and celebrate it either camping or on the beach,” Raúl mentioned. Not only are outdoor activities easier to do because of the warm weather, but the meals associated with the holidays change. Jesús, who lives in Argentina, mentioned that the holiday food is colder: “There are charcuterie and cheese boards to share. They also serve Vitel Toné, veal marinated like ceviche with a tuna sauce that gets served cold.”

Despite being exposed to such a wide array of celebrations, there’s always a feeling of nostalgia for the way this season is celebrated back home. Pablo mentioned: “We remember family, friends, and everyone we left behind, that is always present.” In addition, in one way or another, almost everyone mentioned that not only do they miss their families, but also the broader sense of community felt during Christmas in Venezuela. Raul, for instance, said: “Waiting for the new year to arrive with 2 or 3 people is incredibly odd. I’m still used to being surrounded by over 40 people in my grandmother’s house.” Nevertheless, he also explained:

“The feeling can’t be erased and that’s true, but nostalgia has a muscle and you have to exercise it so it depends on you if you want to stay attached to it, or if you want to celebrate it.” 

Celebrating nostalgia seems like an odd concept. After all, how can this bittersweet feeling be celebrated? But it means making sure that the feeling of home continues, and the best way to do so, is through preserving our traditions. This was shared across the board with everyone I talked to. They all keep traditions to feel closer to home and to instill those values and traditions in their children. This I think happens with most Venezuelans families abroad. No matter the budget, or wherever they are, they are always trying to instill some of these values so that our culture can live on. Jesús and his family decorate on November 18th, the day of the Virgin of Chiquinquirá, the beginning of the Zulian holiday season: “That is something that I emphasize to my kids, that on that day, we decorate our home and eat pan de jamón.”

The Hallaca also remains a staple for Venezuelans around the world. Pablo’s family makes them with ingredients found in unexpected places: “We buy plantain leaves in a Filipino market. Also, we found corn flour in an Indian market, so we started buying it there.” And, through decorations, Milagros and her family are able to remember their home in the Andes by including details from the scenery in their Nativity sets: “There are many shepherds, streams, and mountains, like the scenery in the Andes”, she said. Even in the warm winter in southern Mexico, there’s a piece of the Andes in their home.


However, Venezuelan holidays are not only about traditions, but about getting together with family, but because many are unable to do so, this season is also an opportunity to expand the meaning of family, and maybe break the script of what a Venezuelan holiday looks like. Everyone still talks with their relatives, especially using WhatsApp and FaceTime to feel closer, but they also have developed closer bonds with their friends, even if they are from different countries and this has allowed them to add new traditions from elsewhere in the world that also make them feel happy. Ricardo mentioned: “When you spend Christmas abroad, you appreciate the fact that your friends become your extended family, and that, for me, has been a blessing. I grew up with the tradition that on the 24th and the 31st, you have to wear new clothes. Being here, I’ve gotten the chance to celebrate with their Pajama Party style and it’s fun. It lets you experience the contrast between something more relaxed and intimate in comparison with the elegance and structure of Venezuelan Christmas.”

This has been a common experience for everyone. Jesús and his family get together with families from different countries and exchange dishes. Jesús mentioned: “This year we are hosting, and every family brings a dish, but for the last two or three years we always have brought traditional Venezuelan dishes.” The same happens with Pablo: “Sometimes we get together with a Colombian family and a Mexican family and we all share our traditional dishes. There’s often a comparison between hallacas and tamales and there’s even sometimes a Spanish family that comes and tries the hallacas and they had never tried anything similar.” For Jesús, however, the warm weather has inspired him to incorporate Argentinian traditions and even to think outside of the box as to what to eat:

“During this season, I like to make an Asado, it’s not something we did in Venezuela, but we do it. Sometimes, we even bring other flavors. During a recent Christmas, we made a sushi board.”

Milagros found a bridge between an old tradition in the south of Mexico and one of her favorite Andes New Year’s traditions, the burning of the Año Viejo. “In the southeast, they burn the año Viejo too, but it’s a very old tradition that has not been as ingrained as it was in Venezuela, but we found this bond and we continue celebrating it as we did in the Andes.” Raúl has gotten his fiancés family, who is from Canada, to listen to Gaitas (his love for the genre was recently explained in this article). They also look forward to seeing him run with suitcases when the New Year arrives to ensure that he will travel: “Wherever I go in the world, I take the suitcases out and run. I did it in New Orleans, in South Carolina, in Adelaide and here I’ve done it twice. I go out running and my family really likes it.” However, he also holds a more quiet tradition very dearly: “ I keep eating the twelve grapes before the year arrives and I do it in a very reserved way. I do it because it makes me feel united with my loved ones. After all, we are all making wishes together and among those wishes, there’s health and those things, and also the wish to see each other again.”