What Is Nochebuena? What You Should Know About the Christmas Eve Celebration

published Dec 10, 2022
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4 different nochebuena dishes including red wine sangria, tamales, roast pork with rice and beans, and flan
Credit: Photo (clockwise): Leela Cyd; Joe Lingeman, Food Styling: Barrett Washburne, Prop Styling: Stephanie Yeh; Kelli Foster; Joe Lingeman, Food Stylist: Cyd McDowell
(From top left to right: Red Wine Sangria, Black Bean Tamales) & (from bottom left to right): Mojo Roast Pork & Flan

Without a doubt, the month of December takes the cake when it comes to the number of celebrations people can participate in. This time of year marks the transition from fall to winter and from one year to the next, which is the best time to consume lots of delicious foods and drinks. For many Latinx and Filipinx people around the world, December also means it’s time to prepare for Nochebuena.

Just a few days after the official start of winter, on Christmas Eve, many Latinx, Spanish, and Filipinx people come together with their closest friends and family members to celebrate. The evening usually includes a ton of tasty traditional foods, drinks, and desserts, as well as fun activities, music, and religious observances. Nochebuena is the main celebration for the holiday season, while Christmas Day itself is typically more laid-back. 

What Is Nochebuena?

Nochebuena, which translates to “good night” in Spanish, refers to the traditional Christmas Eve celebration observed by Latinx, Spanish, and Filipinx people around the world. It is arguably one of the most important cultural festivities of the year. 

While many people and countries have different traditions, Nochebuena is most commonly celebrated by hosting an evening with friends and family centered around regional dishes, drinks, music and other festive activities. Additionally, it’s common for many Latinx people to open one or all of their Christmas gifts at midnight during a Nochebuena celebration.

For many people, particularly Roman Catholics, the evening also consists of religious observances. This includes attending a midnight mass referred to as La Misa del Gallo, which translates to “The Mass of the Rooster” in Spanish. 

Some people think of Nochebuena as a solely Latinx cultural and religious tradition, but it is also celebrated by Filipinx people. Like countries of Latin America, the Philippines was colonized by the Spanish, and thus shares many cultural and religious traditions with Spain, including Nochebuena. Over time, however, each country has developed their own unique ways of celebrating the holiday.

How Is Nochebuena Celebrated in Different Countries?

Food in particular is probably the most important aspect of any Nochebuena celebration. Every country has their own set of meals, desserts, and drinks typically prepared on Christmas Eve.

In Cuba, it is customary to prepare a whole, roasted pig that’s been marinated in a traditional Cuban mojo. This dish is known as Lechón Asado, or mojo roast pork, by Cuban Americans. The meal also includes white rice, stewed black beans, or arroz moros (white rice cooked together with black beans), plátanos maduros (fried sweet plantains), boiled yuca with mojo, and flan.

In Puerto Rico, people prepare a large pork roast called pernil as well as arroz con gandules (rice cooked with pigeon peas) and tembleque (a coconut-flavored pudding), coquito (Puerto Rican coconut-flavored eggnog), among other dishes. They also prepare pasteles, banana leaf-wrapped packets of plantain-based masa stuffed with seasoned meat and then boiled or steamed. 

In the Dominican Republic celebrants serve pernil, arroz con gandules, their own pasteles de hoja as well as ensalada rusa (Russian potato salad).

In Mexico, it is very common for many families to prepare a range of dishes including enchiladas, tamales, empanadas, posole (traditional red, green, or white hominy stew), buñuelos (a sweet fried dough), and ponche Navideño, a sweet, warm, Mexican Christmas punch

In the Philippines, many people celebrate Nochebuena with meals like ham and/or lechón, spaghetti, bibingka and puto bumbong (steamed and baked rice cakes), fruit salads, and queso de bola (what’s known in North America as Gouda cheese).

And finally, in Spain many people attend La Misa del Gallo mass. In terms of food, Nochebuena dishes vary depending on the region. In Galicia, located in the northwestern part of the country on the Atlantic coast, seafood is very common. Elsewhere in Spain you might have roast lamb and sweets like polvorones (Spanish-style Christmas cookies) and turrón (a nougat made with toasted nuts).

These are just a few examples of the many different ways Nochebuena is celebrated around the world.