Why Latinx, Filipino families celebrate on Christmas Eve

December 23, 2021
Filipino residents walk outside the St. Joseph Parish Church after attending the first of nine daily dawn masses before Christmas day in suburban Las Pinas city, Philippines on Thursday, Dec. 16, 2021. Filipinos attend nine consecutive dawn masses before Christmas as part of traditional Filipino practice in this largely Roman Catholic nation.
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  • Nochebuena translates to “the good night” and is celebrated on Christmas Eve.
  • The holiday traces back to Spanish colonialization and celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ.
  • Nochebuena isn’t just a Hispanic and Latinx holiday, but it’s also celebrated in the Philippines.

As the night falls on Christmas Eve, most American children are headed to bed in hopes seeing what Santa dropped off during the night, while parents and adults put the finishing touches of what they hope is a magical Christmas morning.

But for the Latinx, Hispanic and Filipino community, the party is already underway, with tamales, adobo, lechón and pancit on deck.

Nochebuena, which translates to “the good night,” is a yearly holiday in which certain communities celebrate Christmas on the night of Dec. 24 rather than Dec. 25. While the traditions and celebrations of the night can vary based on culture and region, a common theme persists: it’s about being together. 

“There’s only two or three times a year where you’ll get the entire extended family together,” Alexandro Gradilla, associate professor of Chicana and Chicano Studies at California State University, Fullerton, told USA TODAY. “It really is not only a holiday of love, but it’s also truly a holiday of peace.”

There are many different ways Nochebuena is celebrated, but it all traces back to one source: religion and Spanish colonialization. 

When Spaniards came to the Americas beginning in the late 1400s, they also brought Catholicism, which sees Christmas as the day Jesus Christ was born. The celebration begins around midnight as that is believed to be the time Christ was born. Today, some go to church for nine straight nights, culminating with mass the night of Christmas Eve or at midnight on Dec. 25.

However, Gradilla said indigenous people throughout the Americas had long celebrated the winter solstice, which typically happens just a few days before Christmas. The two celebrations intertwined to form their own unique event.

“People are bringing in elements of their own seasonal practices that predate colonization by the Spaniards and the introduction of Catholicism,” he said. “It’s a hybrid between celebrations that people held before.”

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Nochebuena isn’t just a Latinx holiday

The holiday has long been seen as a Latinx celebration, but across the Pacific Ocean, the Philippines also has been celebrating Nochebuena for centuries. 

Much like the Americas, the Philippines was under Spanish colonization, which began in the 1500s and lasted for nearly three centuries. Throughout history, many different nations have influenced Philippine culture, but one thing that has remained is religion. Today, roughly 86% of the Philippines’ estimated 109 million population identifies as Roman Catholic, according to Asia Society

“That’s why (Nochebuena) is still seen as part of Filipino tradition; it’s because it is deeply rooted in that past,” James Zarsadiaz, associate professor and director of the Yuchengco Philippine Studies Program at the University of San Francisco, told USA TODAY. “Even if you’re not necessarily Catholic, Filipinos understand what it means and know what the festivities are all about.”

How is Nochebuena celebrated?

Despite being around 8,000 miles away from each other, there are lots of similarities in how Nochebuena is celebrated in the Philippines compared to other countries like Mexico. 

For religious people, the night begins with an evening or midnight mass to honor the birth of Christ. Following that, families and friends gather to have a grand feast, and some families and friends also will open up Christmas presents at this time. Zarsadiaz says it’s common for neighbors and members of the community to gather, regardless of religious status.

“You stay up late, you’re hungry, you eat and you gather with your family and friends and your community,” he said. “Even if you are not religious, you may engage in and participate in Nochebuena because it is about gathering your family and friends together. “

When it comes to eating, some dishes are typically reserved for the big night. In Latinx culture, tamales have long been connected with the night, while in the Philippines meats like adobo and jamón are served. Some dishes are both shared with other countries, like lechón.

One traditional Christmas piece you will see is poinsettia flowers, which are native to much of Mexico and Central America.

Gradilla says the holiday also offers families the rare chance to have multiple generations catching up and celebrating one grand night, something he believes doesn’t happen often in mainstream American culture. Homes will be full of people, and it’s best to show up for it.

“There are some traditions and holidays that you can skip out on, but if you’re living within a Latinx family, not showing up to Christmas Eve is a big deal,” Gradilla said. “That is ‘the holiday.'”

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What does Nochebuena represent?

There are many interpretations of what Nochebuena means to communities, but one theme that is commonly acknowledged is the love.

 Zarsadiaz said the night offers everyone the chance to reflect on the past year and be grateful for still having the opportunity to be around their loved ones. 

“It’s really kind of this moment to celebrate, take pause, be grateful and to ultimately be with family and community.” he said, “As sappy and romantic that sounds, that’s really what it’s all about.”

Gradilla says there are many ties to the story of Christ’s birth and the story of Latinx people in the United States. He said the story of a family facing challenges and looking for a home resonates with a lot of people, not just in a religious way, but a spiritual one.

So when people see families and friends celebrating Christmas on what they believe is the wrong day, it’s far from the truth.

“We’re not celebrating on the wrong day. We’re celebrating the message of Christmas,” Gradilla said. “That’s why the holiday is so special.”

Follow Jordan Mendoza on Twitter: @jordan_mendoza5.

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