Cuban Christmas Traditions, History and Noche Buena
The history of Cuban Christmas is pretty complicated. While the fundamental virtues of family and feast are paramount to most all Cuban families, the Christmas experience varies depending on when you were born in relation to Castro’s rise to power and/or the year of immigration to the States (or elsewhere). Because Christmas in Cuba was outlawed by the atheist Castro regime for nearly 30 years (1969-1997), there is actually an entire generation of Cubans that did not grow up celebrating Christmas and the religious traditions that accompany it (including Three Kings Day). Pretty crazy, right? Even still, it’s no coincidence that I blog about legacy, tradition and culture – most Cubans I know hold onto those 3 virtues and, although outlawed, the holiday never really died out. I’ve read articles saying that, once the ban on Christmas was lifted (by pressure from the Pope), Cubans on the island flocked to buy nativity scenes and decorations to celebrate the holiday legally.
My Cuban-American Christmas Legacy
My parents each immigrated to the States (with their parents, at young ages), before the sad ban on Christmas took place. And because my maternal grandparents had a huge impact on my youth, I have so many memories of celebrating Noche Buena in their home. Noche Buena literally translates as good night, but refers to Christmas Eve. I grew up only celebrating Noche Buena at a young age – Christmas day or Santa was never a big deal – until my parents divorced and my dad re-married my (American) step mom. At this point in my legacy, my Christmas traditions became very bicultural. I guess in terms of presents, traditions and food, I was a lucky kid to celebrate both Noche Buena and Christmas morning with my families.
Cuban Christmas: Holiday Decorations
In Cuban culture – and certainly at my Mami’s house – holiday decor is a big deal. But unlike my American family, the focus was not on Santa. There was always a Christmas tree, but equally important was the Nativity Scene. You can see the large set my grandmother owns, which she has used to decorate for Christmas since I was a baby (top right photo). The middle photo was from my great-great grandmother’s home (she lived until she was over 100 years old) and was a large display that sat underneath the Christmas tree. Presents didn’t come down the chimney – family brought them as they arrived for the Noche Buena party or as they were purchased and wrapped. So those were always a big part of the decor and photo memories, too. Santa is secondary.
Cuban Christmas – Noche Buena
Chritsmas Eve is Cuban Christmas, and Cuban Christmas is Noche Buena… and Noche Buena is allll about the food. Lechon Asado (also, here is my Slow Cooker Lechon Asado recipe), arroz y frijoles negro (Cuban Black Beans), platanito fritos, tostones, croquettas, other meats, drinks and ending with an amazing flan or Cuban Chocolate Cake. The first time I hosted Noche Buena in our new home, it was crazy doing it all by myself. The next year was less so, but still chaotic. This year promises to be calm, more streamlined and with my mom – which is the best Christmas present I could even ask for. The feast starts late – around 9 or 10 – and continues until it’s time to open presents… at midnight.
Cuban Christmas Is Focused On The Family
I think this is perhaps the most under-discussed but highly influential aspects of bicultural holiday traditions: many Latino cultures don’t do the typical American Santa thing. Noche Buena is focused on the family, and the happiness of togetherness. It doesn’t focus on the young kids, or what they necessarily think or their bedtimes or behavior for the preceding month to earn presents. Kids had to stay up, or at least be awake, at midnight if they wanted to open presents. Christmas isn’t about good behavior to earn presents – it’s about expressing love to family members. I remember Christmas to be about family and food and joy, and ultimately, that’s what I want my kids to remember it to be about to.
Bicultural Traditions: A Cuban-American Christmas
Since my step-mom had a giant impact on my upbringing, her influence is highly prevalent in my bicultural traditions and parenting… especially during the holidays. In our home, we do the Santa thing. I do want some focus on my kids in their youth during the holidays. Watching the magic of Christmas come alive at the North Pole Experience this year was amazing. We do stockings, but this year also started a new tradition of the Noche Buena Survival Kit so that she stays up longer, allowing us to celebrate. I love that Alina has learned that Noche Buena is just as important as Christmas – and that she is as excited for presents from mom and dad, as she is for the ones from Santa on Christmas morning.
I’ve never been more proud of my roots and Cuban heritage as I am today. Looking through old photos, remembering my great-grandmother (Margo) who took care of my brother and I after my parents divorced while my mom was at work made me cry. I called my grandmother (Mami) to put my dibs on that nativity set one day. And looking at how beautiful my mom is, and how happy she looks with her two kids by her side, makes me realize that I am living my best years – right this very moment.