(Published in The Record of Hackensack, NJ. on December 22, 1993)
We all have fond memories of Christmas past. Mine seem not to fade with the years, but grow more vivid every December, thanks to a family traditions shared by most of the 25 million Latinos in the United States. This is a time when we reach into our souls and reflect on our lives, our heritage, and our need to be with our loved ones.
This is a time of family customs and homeland traditions. When the holiday season rolls around, our memories take us back to the Christmases of our childhood. Images of snow, reindeer, and a husky and jolly gray-bearded man wearing a red suit make most Americans claim they have been possessed by the “spirit” of the holiday season. They dream of a white Christmas.
But for Latinos, the same spirit conveys images of a green and tropical Navidad, “just like the ones we used to know” in our homelands.
Regardless of where we are, most Latinos long to be home for the traditional dinner and family reunion – the Hispanic equivalent of the North American Thanksgiving – on Christmas Eve. It's called Nochebuena (good night), and it is our most cherished night of the year.
Nochebuena, celebrated throughout Latin America and Spain, may differ slightly from country to country, especially on the dishes served for the family feast, but it is one of the most beautiful traditions shared by Latinos.
For most of us, a roast pork is the main course, but other ingredients vary depending on out where we come from. For my Cuban family, the meal must include black beans, white rice, fried plantains, Cuban bread, Spanish wine, and nougat. Every Cuban claims that his mother makes this meal better than anyone – myself included.
Other memorable times may fade with the years, but the memories of Nochebuena always remain fresh in our minds. During dinner, the discussion takes us back to other Christmases, to laugh about the good times and give thanks for overcoming obstacles.
At my family's home in Miami's “Little Havana,” all my relatives will gather Friday to eat, exchange gifts, and tell old stories. With several American-born additions to our family sitting on their laps, they will celebrate like we did in Cuba – listening to Spanish carols, covering a Christmas tree with twinkling lights and glittering tinsel, and setting up a Nacimiento (Nativity scene) that reminds us of the real meaning of Christmas.
Especially here in the United States, this is a time to dig out the roots of our culture and pass our values and traditions to younger generations.
This is a time to remember family members who are no longer with us. In my family, for many years it was my maternal grandfather, Miguel, a kind and patriarchal figure who died in Miami in 1979, who always presided over the Christmas festivities.
It was he who initiated the meal with a prayer and ended it with a toast to the future of all gathered around the dinner table. That role was passed to my father, until he died in 1987. Now that they are physically gone, their presence still lingers over my Nochebuena as if somehow they could come back to us once a year.
In Hispanic homes throughout North Jersey, families will gather Friday night for a reunion they consider more important than Christmas Day. After all, most Latinos grew up receiving gifts not on Dec. 25, but on the Jan. 6 Feast of the Epiphany – and not from Santa Claus, but from the same three wise men who brought presents to the child Jesus in Bethlehem.
This is another tradition we pass to our children, who receive gifts twice, from Santa and the three kings. As I host Images/Imágenes on NJN at 8 tonight, my 11-month-old daughter, Lilia, will get to meet the idols of my youth – Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar.