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Where Christmas is Easter


Thanks to singer Jos Feliciano, heavy Hispanic migration to the United States and other countries, and multilingual UNICEF greeting cards, even many non-Spanish speakers know that Feliz Navidad is Spanish for Merry Christmas.

Navidad, like Natale in Italian and Nol in French, comes from Latin meaning "day of birth."

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But don't bother telling this to Chileans. In this Spanish-speaking country, Pascua is the favored word for Christmas - never mind that elsewhere in the Hispanophone world, Pascua means Easter. It means Easter in Chile, too.

Here, you want to give the traditional seasonal salutation, you say "Felices Pascuas!" Looking for that perfect gift? It's a regalo de Pascua. And that jolly red-suited fellow who even here down under hails from the North Pole? In Chile, call him el viejo pascuero.

Just why Chile went its separate way on the name for the day celebrating the birth of Jesus appears to be a mystery to most Chileans. What becomes clearer every Christmas season, however, is that - like the uncontrolled spread of some exotic species - Navidad is gaining in usage here as a once-isolated Chile opens its borders and regional markets impose a standardization of language.

"It used to be that all the greeting cards you saw referred to Pascua, but now they all say Navidad," notes Jaqueline Moya, whose Bomboneria 1850 candy shop in central Santiago sells dozens of chocolate viejo pascueros every day this time of year. "I guess it's because most companies don't produce just for Chile anymore, and they wouldn't be able to sell cards and other seasonal products if they said Pascua."

Each year in Chile more stores are switching horses to the Navidad wagon in their advertising - aside from the department store Falabella, whose seasonal slogan, "Pascua Feliz para Todos," is a tradition, like "A Merry Christmas to All!" But, according to Mrs. Moya, Pascua remains supreme in the Chilean home. "We know it's not really correct, that Pascua really refers to the Resurrection," she adds, "but it's hard to break a tradition."

Actually, the usage of Pascua at Christmas is not so incorrect, says journalist Hector Vels-Meza, a kind of William Safire of Chile who, in addition to political column writing, hosts a twice-weekly radio program on word usage. "Foreigners assume we are using Pascua incorrectly, so many Chileans think it's so, but a number of dictionaries prove our usage is not so wrong," he says.

Mr. Vels-Meza points to the dictionary of Spain's Real Academia, the "official voice of the Spanish language," which in its third definition of Pascua cites the period stretching from the birth of Jesus to the day marking the arrival of the Three Wise Men in Bethlehem, celebrated Jan 6.

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"In any case it must be very old, and may find its explanation in the particular [Spanish] conquistadors we had here," he says. One theory is that, as in the case of Quebec, where the French used is often older and less "evolved" than in France, Chile may have hung on to an older use of Pascua because of the country's longtime geographical isolation.

THIS is gradually changing, Vels-Meza says, with Chile's embrace of an export-led economy and the arrival in Chile of international retailers like JC Penney, Laura Ashley, and Home Depot, all of which design advertising supplements and seasonal catalogs for regional markets. Still, in most Chilean families tradition continues to win out over the influences of the market economy.

"These are regalos [gifts] de Pascua, the children don't speak of regalos para Navidad," says Germn Alvarez, an ice-cream salesman indicating the two fine new bicycles he's wheeling home from a central Santiago store.

Moments later a man passes with a boxed artificial Christmas tree balanced on his shoulder. Asked if it's a tree for Pascua or Navidad, he says, "Well, let's look on the box." But that's no help. The label reads in English: "Christmas Tree. Made in China."

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