Christmas is a huge deal to Latinos, but nothing is a bigger deal than Noche Buena. Noche Buena is what we call Christmas Eve, except, whereas most cultures celebrate the holiday on Christmas Day, we do the whole shebang on Christmas Eve and instead take it easy on Christmas Day.
The whole point of Christmas is to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, and as Latinos, that’s our main focus.
We believe that Christ was born on Christmas Day, December 25th, so on that day, we might open a few gifts in the morning, we definitely attend mass, and we might have a meal at night. Traditions vary from country to country, but most have a giant shindig on Noche Buena.
The entire family gathers for a party, there’s food everywhere, the music is popping, people are dancing- it’s a hoot.
There’s usually a mass at midnight (what we call Misa de Gallo, or Mass of Roosters) which adults, and mostly older, more devout people, tend to go to. It’s more of a religious holiday than a “Hallmark” one, so while we do exchange gifts and eat yummy food and dance to traditional music, it’s all in celebration of the birth of Christ.
In case we forget, there’s almost always a nativity set in every Latino household during the holiday season. In mine, we didn’t put the Baby Jesus in the manger until Christmas morning, symbolizing his birth.
While the premise is the same, every country does things differently. Chileans typically feast on oven roasted chicken and turkey, Cubans eat black beans, rice, and roast pig, Mexicans go in on tamales, and in my Venezuelan household, we have hallacas, which are very similar to the Mexican tamales.
We dance to merengue and salsa, we listen to traditional Latino Christmas music, and we dance until we fall asleep.
There’s tons of wine, ponche crema or coquito (our version of eggnog), and every member of the family is catching up and gossiping about the latest hot news. We exchange gifts, and the kids open their presents late at night, usually around midnight. The Baby Jesus brings presents for kids, not Santa Claus, so they stay up until the presents “miraculously” appear. If Santa comes, he comes as a sidekick to the Baby Jesus, rather than as the star of the show himself.
It’s all very festive, super fun, and something everyone looks forward to all year. It’s the one time a year where we all come together, and that’s more valuable than any present or dish or tradition combined.
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