The weather is balmy and the skies are awash with fireworks, but in every other respect, Christmas in Latin America mirrors the holiday season in the cold north, with gifts for the children, feasts for the adults and good will all around.
Christmas is the biggest holiday of the year for the predominantly Roman Catholic populations of Mexico and South America. For the people of each country, 'Feliz Navidad' means special festivities. Some customs -- like artificial snow in Chile -- are borrowed from Europe while others -- like roller skating in Venezuela -- have a distinct Latin flair.
And, like their northern sisters, the southern nations ring in the New Year with plenty of pizazz, from tickertape showers in the business district of Buenos Aires to midnight ocean swims along the beaches of Rio de Janeiro. MEXICO The holiday season starts Dec. 16, when each neighborhood and village begins holding Christmas fiestas called 'posadas.' These commemorate the flight of Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem with live re-enactments featuring costumed players. The last night of the posadas is Christmas Eve, the high point of the holidays in Mexico. Extended families -- grandparents, uncles and aunts and their children -- get together for the traditional Christmas Eve meal. The menu usually includes poultry, a special soup called 'pozole' made from corn kernels and pork and, for the adults, a yuletide drink called 'ponche,' a blend of fruit juice, sugar and spices mixed with brandy or rum and served hot.
In the hours before midnight, children set off firecrackers in the streets and everyone gathers to break a pinata that contains candies, fruits, nuts and small gifts.
Most Mexicans attend midnight mass and churches are usually overflowing. At the stroke of midnight, everyone embraces each other and cries out 'Feliz Navidad!'
Some families exchange gifts on Christmas Eve, while others wait until the Epiphany, or Dia de los Reyes, on Jan. 6. VENEZUELA In the capital city of Caracas, with its year-round spring-like weather, roller skating is one of the most popular holiday activities.
A few weeks before Christmas, the local government announces which parks and plazas will be open for skating during the holiday season. Areas around churches are also used, as entire families often make a joint outing to attend Mass -- and get a bit of exercise and fresh air - on their roller skates.
The great holiday delicacy in Venezuela is a stew-filled tamale called the 'hallaca,' made in a long, complicated process that most cooks will attempt only once a year -- if then.
Spicy meat is mixed with olives and assorted vegetables, stuffed in dough, wrapped in banana leaves, tied with string like Christmas packages and dropped in a huge boiling kettle of water.
The making of hallacas often is a family project, with four orfive pairs of hands pitching in on a job that can take up to two days.
Most families set up Christmas trees with presents piled underneath, but the standard Venezuelan celebration centers around a large nativity scene in a corner of the living room, with presents appearing there at midnight on Christmas Eve.
The next day, adults do not ask children, 'What did Santa Claus bring you?' but rather, 'What did the baby Jesus bring you?'
Even if Christmas is celebrated under intense tropical heat in most parts of the country, Brazilians are among the most jubilant merrymakers.
By early October, stores are jammed with Christmas decorations, complete with Santa Claus, reindeer, fake snow and artificial Christmas trees. In Rio de Janeiro, the wide boulevards along the city's beaches are decorated with colored lights and neon wishes for a Merry Christmas.
In Brazil's pervasive consumer culture, largely modeled after the United States, television advertisements constantly plug Christmas presents right up to the last-minute rush to buy gifts. Many families spend their entire 13th month salary (the customary Christmas bonus) on presents and go into debt to buy even more.
The tradition of attending 'misa del gallo' (midnight mass) on Christmas Eve is still upheld by people in the interior states but the practice has fallen out of favor in the larger cities. On Christmas Day, many families eat turkey and fruitcake, and then leave the next day for holidays at the beach or in the mountains, sparking huge traffic jams.
New Year's Eve is the peak of the holiday season. In Sao Paulo, the Sao Silvestre marathon attracts dozens of the world's top runners each year. The race is timed to end at midnight, when the winners are doused with champagne and confetti by New Year's Eve celebrants.
The crescent-shaped Copacabana beach in Rio is the scene of an unusual New Year's Eve ritual: mass public blessings by the mother-saints of the Macumba and Candomble sects.
More than 1 million people gather to watch colorful fireworks displays before plunging into the ocean at midnight after receiving the blessing from the mother-saints, who set up mini-temples on the beach.
New Year's Eve also is the time that Candomble believers worship Iemanja, the sea goddess, by decorating tiny boats with flowers and offerings and pushing them into the crashing surf.
PERU AND BOLIVIA
In these predominantly Catholic nations, Christmas is, without question, the most important holiday of the year.
On Christmas Eve in Peru, rich and poor alike eat fruitcake, called paneton, and drink chocolate milk, a secular custom that has been around as long as anyone remembers.
Most Peruvians, especially in the shantytowns surrounding Lima or in the Andean countryside, attend Midnight Mass, known as the 'Mass of the rooster,' and gather with family for a Christmas Eve dinner.
Peruvians decorate their homes with colored lights, small creches and Christmas trees, which are nearly always artificial because most of Peru's coast is bone-dry desert.
In the Andes, peasants gather in the streets in front of nativity scenes to dance and sing Christmas hymns. Many play native pipes, flutes and accordions. Fireworks are common. For these mountain people, the annual holiday meal includes a thick soup, mondongo, made from cow intestines.
In Bolivia, the traditional Christmas Eve stew, called picana, is made from beef, pork and chicken. In recent years, Bolivians have begun giving gifts to their children on Christmas rather than on the Feast of the Epiphany, Jan. 6, as was the oldcustom.
Carolers are common in the streets and many of the singers also dance, especially in front of stores, where they are likely to receive a gift.
Christmas comes at the start of summer in the southern hemisphere, and Chilean families spend the Christmas season at home before setting off for their beach houses for the summer holidays. Despite the warm climate, Chileans stick to the traditional Christmas tree, decorating it with cottonwool to simulate snow.
Christmas Eve is celebrated with a big family dinner, after which presents are handed out. The meal usually consists of roast turkey or chicken, washed down by a special holiday drink called 'cola de mono' (monkey's tail), a concoction like egg nog made of white rum, coffee, milk and sugar.
New Year's Eve involves another family get-together at which the adults drink 'ponche a la Romana' (Roman punch), a potent combination of champagne and pineapple ice cream. In Valparaiso, the country's largest port on the Pacific coast, the new year is welcomed with a barage of fireworks that light up the bay, as the ships in the harbor sound their sirens and foghorns.
Christmas and New Year's Day are family affairs in Argentina. Large gatherings of parents, children and in-laws sit down to an enormous dinner usually of beef barbecue (asado) or roast pig (lechon).
Other favorite seasonal dishes are pan dulce, a cake with dried fruit and almonds, and fermented apple cider (sidra). Children get a taffy-like candy known as turron that usually has a peanut base.
Christmas trees are popular in Buenos Aires but somewhat less so in the interior provinces where the northern European customs are less widespread.
Santa Claus, sweltering in the summer heat of the southern hemisphere, makes frequent appearances in television commercials and at shopping centers.
Each family exchanges gifts on one of the season's three main holidays: Christmas, New Year's Day or the feast of the Epiphany on Jan. 6, known as Three King's Day.
If Christmas Eve or New Year's Eve fall on workdays, companies often sponsor small parties, serving pan dulce and sidra or small sandwiches and empanadas (meat pies) for employees. At the workplace people make the rounds from office to office to greet old friends and make peace with enemies.
On New Year's Eve in downtown Buenos Aires, beginning at around 1 p.m., workers throw bundles of computer balance sheets from office buildings and cheer as the makeshift streamers float down into the streets.
New Year's Day marks the beginning of a long, three-month vacation period in which Argentina's political developments come to a halt. Announcements of new business and government projects are delayed until March, when the holidays end.