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For Nicaraguans, the Christmas season begins each year on December 7 and 8. That's when they celebrate La Purisima, or the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary. They do so by building an altar just inside the entrance of their homes, so it is visible from the street through the open front door. When guests come in to worship at the altar, they are treated to special treats and gifts. The celebration continues through- out the month of December, as children carry tropical flowers to the altar of the Virgin and then sing holiday carols. Then on Christmas Eve, everyone heeds the call of the church bells to Midnight Mass. After kissing the image of the Christ Child in the manger, Nicaraguans return home to open presents they believe are brought by the baby Jesus. The month-long holiday season winds down with the celebration of the "Three Kings" and the feast of the Epiphany on January 6. According to Nicaraguan custom, it is these three richly dressed visitors who bring the main holiday gifts to their children. In antici- pation of the arrival of the Magi, youngsters put their shoes out and fill them with grass for the wise men's camels. After all the Epiphany gifts are opened and admired, the year's celebration concludes with an impressive fireworks display.
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