Why 'Nochebuena' is a bigger deal than Christmas for Latinos
While every Latinx household is different, for most families, the night is complete with a feast of traditional dishes, dancing, an exchange of gifts, the singing of Christmas carols called Vicllancicos, and typically someone older dressing up as Santa Claus. (Reg Natarajan)
TORONTO -- On Christmas morning, most people with Latin American roots aren’t waking up early to open gifts.
That’s because we opened them the night before, and we’re likely exhausted from partying. Please let us sleep.
Not to brag, but Christmas actually comes one day early for Latinx people -- any person with Latin American roots -- with most celebrations happening on Dec. 24.
Ask most Latinx people in Canada and the United States and they’ll tell you the biggest night of the month is Christmas Eve or “Nochebuena,” which means the “good night.”
CHURCH AND THE PARTY ARE ON DEC. 24
While every household is different, for most families, the night is complete with a feast of traditional dishes, dancing, an exchange of gifts, the singing of Christmas carols called Villancicos, and typically someone older dressing up as Santa Claus.
While Kris Kringle gets all the credit for gifts in North American homes, for many Latinx families, children know exactly which family member or friend gifted what.
And then, depending on a family’s religiosity, members attend a late-night church service or Christmas mass called “La Misa del Gallo,” literally translating to the Rooster’s Mass. But don’t expect a solemn service to damper any party afterwards.
It’s common for Christmas Eve festivities go into the early morning -- which essentially makes Christmas Day more of an afterthought for Latinx people. Some even going so far as to call it the “day of leftovers.”
But if families are fortunate enough, children might get another round of gifts from either El Niño Jesus (Baby Jesus) or Santa on Christmas morning.
“The figure of Santa Claus now is very much a part of Latin America, but before, maybe, the 1940s, it would usually be the newborn Jesus that gave you the gift, after he was born which is the 25th,” Berenice Villagomez, co-ordinator of Latin American Studies at the University of Toronto, told CTVNews.ca by phone.
CHRISTMAS EVE CAPS OFF MONTH OF CELEBRATION
So why the focus on Dec. 24, even if people aren’t religious? Across Latin America, Christmas Eve was the big finale to colonial-era traditions which have taken on cultural significance.
For example, in Colombia and Argentina, Dia de las Velitas (or Day of the Little Candles) on Dec. 7, marks the unofficial start of the Christmas season, with celebrations going until the next day. It involves thousands of candles being lit throughout their cities to honor the Virgin Mary and her Immaculate Conception.
Then, for Catholics in Mexico, their Christmas season kicks off on Dec. 12 on the Day of Virgin of Guadalupe, Villagomez said, explaining it started in 1531.
And these pave the way for one of the biggest celebrations in Central America, particularly in Mexico and Guatemala, where people host mini-parties on each of the nine days before Christmas Eve.
Leylanis Gonzalez, playing Mary, and Orlando Hidalgo, playing Joseph, wait to be let in to the Church of the Immaculate Conception during a Las Posadas celebration on Sunday, Dec. 16, 2012 in York, Pa. (AP Photo/York Daily Record, Jeff Lautenberger)
La Posadas, which translates to “the inns" or "the shelters,” are basically mini-processions where children and adults dress up and reenact the biblical story of Jesus’ parents, Mary and Joseph, searching for lodging on their way to Bethlehem.
Depending on the neighbourhood, the couple called “the pilgrims” go door-to-door singing songs and being offered holiday foods such as hot tamales. And the night ends with children breaking a piñata, which signifies destroying evil.
While Chile and Ecuador doesn’t have Posadas, they have “Novena” (Nine in Latin) masses in the evenings on the nine days before Christmas Eve.
Dancers from La Magdalena community hold candles as they pray on the seventh day of the "Novena" in Quito, Ecuador, Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2015.
All these celebrations lead to the aforementioned “Nochebuena” on Dec. 24, which signifies the joy Christians feel on the day Jesus was born, University of Regina history professor Scarlet Munoz Ramirez explained.
The night’s mass and church services are observed in countries such as Mexico, Brazil, Puerto Rico, Bolivia and Puerto Rico. And in Venezuela, this mass is only one of a series of masses that month held early in the morning.
Ramirez explained this late-night, Christmas Eve mass -- which originated in Rome and Spain – is “the most important mass of the year.”
COLONIALISTS USED TRADITIONS TO CONVERT THE INDIGENOUS
While the customs today carry a lot of joy and memories for people, the region’s sordid colonial past is at the heart of Dec. 24’s significance today.
“The roots are religious there’s no doubt,” professor Antonio Torres-Ruiz at the Centre for Research on Latin America and the Caribbean at York University said during a phone interview.
The Posadas, for example, were part of Catholic Church’s push for evangelization back in the 16th century, according to Ramirez, who specializes in colonial Mexican history.
In general, colonists used these month-long rituals, Nativity scenes and Christmas carols as a way to spread Catholicism to the indigenous people and slave populations -- in countries such as modern-day Mexico, Colombia, Bolivia and Peru.
Each holding a candle, hundreds of people join the march Thursday, Dec. 8, 2011 at Las Posadas Celebration in Porterville, Calif. (AP Photo/The Porterville Recorder, Chieko Hara)
Noting the indigenous people’s cultures, Torres-Ruiz said “although the Christian tradition is important, it’s not the only one.” Villagomez agreed saying Christmas practices largely helped shape Latin America’s religious makeup.
Torres-Ruiz further explained Christmas evangelization rituals were slightly unnecessary in places such as Cuba and Brazil, where colonizers unfortunately decimated more of its indigenous peoples.
“So that reduces the significance of Christmas for some of these peoples there,” Torres-Ruiz said, adding that, in Cuba, Christmas in general is more of a secular holiday.
IMPORTANCE OF DEC. 24 IS MORE PRACTICAL TODAY
But despite its colonial background, the practice of getting together on Christmas Eve still remains today out of practically -- even if families aren’t religious.
“Traditionally, you usually stay in the same city as your families,” Villagomez said, adding that “if, say, (a) grandmother was still alive, everyone would gather at her place and then it becomes a party because you have (relatives) of all ages there.”
She explained that unlike Canada or the U.S., Latinx countries don’t have anything similar to Boxing Day. “So people would celebrate a little earlier on the (Dec.) 24th, so they have 25 as the day to rest and recover because on the 26th, you’re back to work,” she said.
Ramirez agreed and said on Christmas Day, people tend to just enjoy leftovers and families tend to get together but “it’s very, very informal. It’s nothing like Nochebuena.”
Both she and Torres-Ruiz both referred to Christmas Eve as “the most important date for families to come together and meet in one place” – very similar to Canadian and American Thanksgiving, which doesn’t exist in Latin America.
For Latinx families in Canada and in Central America today, the handful of Christmas celebrations during December has become a month-long excuse to catch up with famiy, get a bevy of gifts and begin capping off the year with loved ones.
And because the entire month is so Christmas-centric, Villagomez laughed because across Latin America, “you can’t get anything done. It’s a lot of parties.”