It’s Noche Buena

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As you read this newsletter, I, and probably many others in Latino and Filipino households, will be busy cooking pernil, lechon or vegetarian pastelón. Others will be cleaning every nook and cranny of their living rooms and rearranging furniture to make space for extended family coming over for dinner. Some will be getting their hair done or wrapping last-minute gifts; it’s Noche Buena after all.

Noche Buena, or Christmas Eve, traces back to Spanish colonization and the spread of Catholicism in the Philippines and Latin America until the late 17th century, Matthew A. Nicdao, a research associate at the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College, said in a phone interview.

Catholicism remains a dominant influence in both places. Roughly 80 percent of Filipinos are Catholic, according to a 2015 study from the Pew Research Center. Although there’s been a reported decline in Catholicism in Latin America, cultural celebrations still revolve around Catholic holidays, said Djali Brown-Cepeda, the founder and curator of Nuevayorkinos, a digital archival project documenting New York City Latino and Caribbean culture and history.

Generally speaking, Noche Buena involves a late dinner hosted on the 24th of December that spills into early Christmas Day. Some families, like mine, serve the feast at midnight, but dinner is often eaten around 10 p.m. to make time for Midnight Mass (Misa de Gallo in Spanish, or Simbang Gabi in Tagalog). Gifts are usually handed out after everyone eats, either before mass or in lieu of it.

The dinners, which include extended family members, are elaborate, and they’re more like parties with music, games and sometimes dancing. Traditional dishes tend to be large cuts of meat like pork shoulder or suckling pig, which take hours to prepare and are meant to feed a lot of people, Stephanie Del Carmen, a Colombian chef from Barranquilla who now lives in New York City, said.

Stephanie Del Carmen’s mother, Luz Beatriz Mejia Montaño, called Luz Betty, left, and her mother, Dilma Montaño de Mejia, called Abuela Dilma, make tamales in Barranquilla, Colombia, on Dec. 24, 2020.Credit…Stephanie Del Carmen

Although many cultural similarities between the Philippines and Latin America stem from the Spanish imposition of Catholicism, the overlap of our customs, according to Dr. Nicdao, came by way of the galleon trade between Manila and Acapulco and the contact between Filipino sailors and Mexican dockworkers. The galleon trade brought spices, porcelain, and other goods from China to Mexico in exchange for precious metals from the Americas.

“Philippine culture is more largely influenced by Mexico and the Americas than Spain,” Dr. Nicdao said. Dr. Nicdao and his family identified as Latino before migrating in the 1980s to the United States, where Dr. Nicdao was taught in school that he was Asian American, not Latino.

Words, mannerisms and customs were traded along with metals and spices, leading to myriad ways to commemorate Jesus’ birth according to the Christian calendar. Music, for example, is an important part of Noche Buena and can take many forms.

Danika Fernandez’s family gathers for a holiday photo on Noche Buena. Here they are in 2016.Credit…Fernandez Family

Ever since she was 5, Danika Ferndandez has sung at her church’s Misa de Gallo in Hayward, Calif., on Christmas Eve. Ms. Fernandez, now a music educator in New York, has flown back to her hometown to sing in the church choir every year since moving to the East Coast in 2019. For the last 25 years, she’s also sung at daily masses held at 5:30 a.m. from Dec. 16 to Christmas Eve. Now that she’s older and thinking about starting a family, she knows that gathering, listening to music and singing are all a part of the tradition that she wants to pass down — but maybe not the early morning mass.

“When you’re a kid, you’re just kind of thrust into it because your mom’s waking up early in the morning and saying, ‘We’re going to church,’” she said. “Now, I have responsibility for it. Now, I feel the importance of it.”

For Ms. Brown-Cepeda, honoring the traditions of Noche Buena is about decentralizing the white American experience, and one way to do that is by singing villancicos, or Latin American Christmas carols. Her parents made sure that she grew up feeling proud of being Afro-Indigenous, Dominican and Puerto Rican. Although she and her partner aren’t religious, they will sing Latino Christmas carols like “El Burrito Sabanero” and “Dulce Jesus Mio.” They also plan on incorporating novenas, which involves nine consecutive nights of prayer and singing villancicos. Novenas are commonly celebrated in Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela to prepare for Christmas.

Latino culture is inextricably intertwined with Catholicism, and these aspects are more about maintaining cultural ties than they about religion for Ms. Brown-Cepeda. She sees it as a privilege that her parents were in a position to be able to pass down their traditions. Through her archival work, she’s learned that others may have found it easier to assimilate into more American customs, depending on when their family migrated. She sees the holiday as a way of continuing tradition regardless of where they now live.

John Sapida, Ms. Fernandez’s partner, migrated with his family from the Philippines to New Jersey in 2002, when he was around 9 years old. His family would recreate their experience of Noche Buena in the Philippines with their new neighbors. Mr. Sapida, a manager for digital initiatives at the American Museum of Natural History, says the smells of the food have never quite been right since migrating, but the sentiment is always the same.

He remembers celebrating with many titos and titas, or aunts and uncles, who weren’t necessarily blood relatives but were close friends who had also migrated to the area. They would pool together gifts for the kids, and, after dinner, an adult would hand out the gifts from a big bag with the tenor of a game-show host. At midnight, everyone would go home to spend time with their immediate family — and maybe play with a new toy.

Noche Buena brings friends, neighbors and extended family together.Credit…Via Stephanie Del Carmen

Ms. Del Carmen’s family would do the same thing. Her father would often hand out gifts around 11:30 p.m., creating a big spectacle. He would tell jokes and have people try to guess what the gifts were. The next day, on Christmas, she and her friends would walk around the neighborhood, showing off their new toys and clothes.

She remembers that Noche Buena would turn into a big block party, with her neighbors bringing their sound systems out to the street. She hasn’t been able to go back home for Christmas in 10 years. This year, she hopes to bring the spirited party she remembers to Bushwick, Brooklyn, by hosting her first Parranda Navideña, or Christmas Party, one that she hopes to make an annual tradition through her culinary project, La TropiKitchen.

Working in kitchens in New York, Ms. Del Carmen noticed an increase in Colombian refugees in recent years, given ongoing civil unrest. “Most of these people don’t have anyone,” she said. “They’re just here by themselves. And, as immigrants, we don’t really belong anywhere. We’re different, we’re something else and we have to create spaces to share our experiences.”

She’ll serve tamales, and there will be music and drinks, but, most important, the party will be a place to gather in a familiar way. “At the end of the day,” she said, “these dates are about family and community, you know?”

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