It is summertime in Latin America, as hot and humid in much of the area as it is cold and snowy in parts of the United States.
Stands set up along the Panamerican Highway running between the little city of Parral (pop. 36,700) in the south and Santiago, Chile's capital in the center of the country, are already laden with fresh strawberries, peaches and grapes.
The fields along the main northsouth road are neatly plowed and planted, green with the grains and vegetables that will, two months from now, produce another fine harvest. The Andes, snowcapped even in summer, form a spectacular backdrop for the lush farming areas that stretch hundreds of miles to the south of Santiago.
Shops throughout the country have for weeks been selling "pan de Pascua," a kind of fruitcake popular in most of Latin America during the Christmas season. This week, wherever Chileans gathered, they toasted the season with "cola de mono," a kind of eggnog spiked with a Chilean cane spirit called pisco rather than rum.
Last night, families throughout Chile and other Latin American countries, sat down together for the traditional Christmas Eve dinner, something special such as beef or chicken or duckling in even the most modest homes.
In some homes, simply decorated fir trees -- a custom unknown in Latin America even a generation ago -- stand over gaily wrapped gifts, often more practical and less costly than in the United States.
From the radio came imported tunes that would make any North American feel at home: "Silent Night," sung in both English and Spanish, "Jingle Bells" and, occasionally, Bing Crosby singing "I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas" -- somehow a bit out of place with temperatures in the 70s and 80s in much of South America and higher in Central America, parts of Brazil and the Caribbean.
Despite the weather, Christmas is universal, though celebrated in this part of the world with slightly different rituals than in the United States or Europe. Christmas here is perhaps less commercial, perhaps a bit more religious, with more emphasis on Christmas Eve -- called Nochebuena or "Good Eve" -- than on Christmas Day itself.
But Christmas, called "Navidad' or "Pascua" in Spanish, is Christmas wherever it is celebrated, a joyous religious holiday that brings families together in Latin America as in the United States.
Families such as the Vargases or Saavedras in Santiago, for example, gathered for Christmas dinner last night, the Vargases at 10:30, the Saavedras at midnight. Following tradition, even grown children returned to their parents' homes if possible from as far away as Sao Paulo, Brazil, in the case of the Vargas' married daughter.
Before dinner, both families drank champagne and visited their neighbors to wish them 'Feliz Navidad" and accept their neighbors' best wishes in return. People who live in apartments or houses here often know their neighbors well and sometimes depend on them as they would members of their own families.
After dinner, the presents were opened -- except for the smallest children, whose gifts were placed in their bedrooms during the night and who then opened them this morning. Other families, following more traditional customs, will give their children presents on Jan. 6, known as Epiphany or the Day of the Three Kings and formerly celebrated in English-speaking countries as Twelfth Night. Little children in Latin America believe their gifts come -- not from Santa Claus -- but from the Three Kings or Wise Men who took gifts to Jesus.
Christmas Day was spent at home, visiting friends or at the splendid public swimming pools that abound here. The pools are reminders of the time when this country had a different economic and political system that emphasized social welfare and recreation facilities for poor and middle-class families, rather than the discipline and orthodox capitalist economic policies of the current military government.
The wealthy, here as in other South American countries, as often as not were at the beach last night and today, celebrating the night before Christmas and the holiday itself in their vacation homes or apartments at such resorts as Cartegena in Colombia, Punta del Este in Ururguay, Mardel Plata in Argentina or Zapallar in Chile.
The gifts at the seaside were more elaborate, the Christmas trees more richly decorated, the food better and the wines more costly. But families were together and the spirit of Christmas was the same among the rich as among the poor.
As in most of Latin America, about 90 percent of this country's 11 million people are Roman Catholics. Some are religious and some are not. In Chile and Uruguay, where the church hierarchy is more liberal than in countries such as Argentina or Colombia, fewer families attend mass regularly.
But for those who are religious, midnight mass on Christmas Eve is obligatory. Last night, churches in Chile were crowded, if not overflowing. Cardinal Raul Silva Henriquez, the archbishop of Santiago and Chile's highest prelate, celebrated mass in the city's cathedral.
At the sumptuous, Spanish colonial Church of San Francisco on the Alameda, Santiago's main thoroughfare, more than 600 of the faithful, as many men as women, as many teenagers and young adults as middle-aged and older people, gathered to celebrate the mass commemorating Christ's birth. a
A group of singers and musicians, dressed in traditional folk costumes, added quaint touch of "Chilean-ness" to the already colorful religious ceremony. By 1 a.m., the mass was over and the faithful spilled into the almost deserted streets of downtown Santiago.