What Is Noche Buena? How It’s Celebrated Around the World
Though there are many widespread Christmas traditions, holiday celebrations look different not only from family to family, but also from culture to culture. While your loved ones may not do much more than don matching jammies, sip hot cocoa, or binge holiday movies on Christmas Eve, others put much more stock in the evening—like Italians who celebrate the Feast of the Seven Fishes, or Hispanic people who celebrate Noche Buena.
What exactly is Noche Buena, you’re wondering? The English translation of the Spanish term Noche Buena is “good night,” says Juan Aguirre, Executive Director of the Mexican culture non-profit Mano a Mano. It’s also the name of a familiar Christmas plant: the poinsettia. The flor de Nochebuena is native to Mexico, and it’s coined as such because it turns a very bright red shade right around Christmastime.
But when used in the context of Christmas, Noche Buena, refers to a special event that takes place on December 24.
Noche Buena is a holiday celebration for Christian Latinx people around the world.
In the simplest terms, Noche Buena is a Christmas Eve celebration for Christian Latinx populations. (It’s not to be confused with Media Noche, which refers to a lavish midnight feast that takes place on New Year’s Eve.) Noche Buena is a time for family and friends to gather and eat, drink, be merry, and—for some—celebrate the religious component of the holiday, the birth of Jesus.
In many countries, including Mexico and the Philippines, the holiday is even more important than Christmas Day itself, according to Aguirre, with the party lasting all afternoon and well into the night.
Though Christians believe Christ was born on Christmas Day—an occasion commonly celebrated with a mass—Latinx and Hispanic cultures that celebrate Noche Buena focus on the night before Christ’s birth, or Christmas Eve. It’s an anticipatory celebration where families gather to eat and often exchange gifts. Meanwhile, Christmas day itself is more relaxing.
Celebrations vary widely depending on your region, says Aguirre. Still, there are some constants; typically, the night is extremely festive, and at its core, no matter where you are, the evening revolves around plenty of food, music, and time with family.
The evening also commonly includes a more formal aspect for Christians of various nationalities, like attending mass. Sometimes this mass takes place before dinner, but the more traditional mass is called la Missa del Gallo, or midnight mass.
The food served on Noche Buena is largely dependent on geographical location.
In Latin America, food tends to be very localized, says Aguirre. As such, you’ll see wide variations on holiday tables, depending on where you’re celebrating Noche Buena.
For instance, if you’re celebrating in Cuba…
For example, if you attend a Caribbean (largely Cuban or Puerto Rican) Noche Buena, you’ll likely enjoy lechón, or roast pig.
In Mexico, the celebration more closely resembles what Americans know as Thanksgiving, a big family feast complete with tamales, pozole (a traditional hominy stew), and pavo, or turkey, says Aguirre. In Central Mexico, families may serve mixiote, traditional pit-barbecued meat.
Or the Philippines…
Across the world in the Philippines, where Noche Buena is also celebrated, revelers indulge in traditional foods like hamonado (pineapple-infused chicken or pork), sotanghon soup (a hot noodle soup), and tsokolate (hot chocolate).
On Noche Buena, revelers engage in many traditional activities, including breaking piñatas.
Like the food served, the activities that take place during a Noche Buena celebration depend on the region and, of course, the traditions families choose to adopt.
In some countries, the party begins nine days before Noche Buena with celebrations called las Posadas. These celebrations—literally meaning “lodging”—commemorate the journey of Mary and Joseph from Nazareth to Bethlehem, says Aguirre. At a posada, guests participate in an outdoor procession near the home singing villancicos, or holiday songs, and building piñatas.
The breaking of piñatas is significant because it symbolizes the rejection of sin, says Aguirre. Traditional piñatas, which have seven points, are supposed to be beautiful and alluring, he explains. “When the sin is broken, the candy within represents a reward from heaven.”
In other countries, family may simply enjoy each other’s company and some games. Dominos, for example, is especially popular in Caribbean countries like Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic.
In Latin America, specifically Mexico, American traditions like waiting for Santa Claus and decorating a Christmas tree have also become more central themes of the holiday. But one big difference, according to Aguirre, is that Mexicans put a nativity scene—not gifts—under the tree. Still, some families opt to exchange gifts after midnight, in the early hours of Christmas.
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