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Why ‘Nochebuena’ is a bigger deal than Christmas for Latinos

by ace
Why 'Nochebuena' is a bigger deal than Christmas for Latinos

On Christmas morning, most people with Latin American roots do not wake up early to open presents.

That's because we opened them the night before and we're probably exhausted from partying. Please, let's go to sleep.

It's not to brag, but Christmas comes a day early for Latin Americans – anyone with Latin American roots – with most celebrations taking place on December 24th.

Ask most Latinx people in Canada and the United States and they will tell you that the biggest night of the month is Christmas Eve or "Nochebuena" which means "good night".


While each family is different, for most families, the night is complete with a feast of traditional dishes, dancing, gift-giving, the singing of Christmas songs called Vicllancicos, and usually someone older who dresses like Santa Claus. .

While Kris Kringle gets full credit for gifts in North American homes, for many Latinx families, children know exactly which family member or friend gave what.

And then, depending on a family's religiosity, members attend a church night service or Christmas mass called "La Misa del Gallo," literally translating to Rooster Mass. But don't expect solemn service to dampen any party afterwards.

It is common for Christmas Eve festivities to come early, which essentially makes Christmas Day another afterthought for Latin Americans. Some even go so far as to call the day of leftovers.

But if families are lucky, children may receive another round of gifts from El Niño Jesus (baby Jesus) or Santa Claus on Christmas morning.

"The figure of Santa Claus is now part of Latin America, but earlier, perhaps, in the 1940s, it would usually be the newborn Jesus who gave him the gift after he was born on the 25th," Berenice Villagomez, coordinator of Latin American Studies at the University of Toronto, told CTVNews.ca by telephone.

Christmas Eve Causes Month of Celebration

So why focus on December 24, even if people aren't religious? Throughout Latin America, Christmas Eve was the grand end of colonial-era traditions that took on cultural significance.

For example, in Colombia and Argentina, Las Velitas Day (or Small Candle Day) on December 7 marks the unofficial beginning of the Christmas season, with celebrations taking place until the following day. It involves thousands of candles being lit in their cities to honor the Virgin Mary and her Immaculate Conception.

So for Catholics in Mexico, the Christmas season begins December 12 on the day of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Villagomez said, explaining started in 1531.

And that paves the way for one of Central America's biggest celebrations, especially in Mexico and Guatemala, where people hold mini parties on each of the nine days before Christmas Eve.

Leylanis Gonzalez, playing Mary, and Orlando Hidalgo, playing Joseph, are waiting to be admitted to the Immaculate Conception Church during a celebration in Las Posadas on Sunday, December 16, 2012 in York, PA. (AP Photo / York Daily Record Jeff Lautenberger)

La Posadas, which translates to "inns" or "shelters," are basically mini-processions in which children and adults dress and reenact the biblical story of the parents of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph in search of lodging en route to Bethlehem.

Depending on the neighborhood, the couple called "the pilgrims" go door to door singing and receive holiday food such as hot tamales. And the night ends with children breaking a piñata, which means destroying evil.

Although Chile and Ecuador do not have Posadas, they have "Novena" masses (nine in Latin) at night on the nine days before Christmas Eve.

La Magdalena community dancers hold candles while praying on the seventh day of "Novena" in Quito, Ecuador, Tuesday, December 22, 2015.

All of these celebrations lead to the mentioned “Nochebuena” on December 24, which means the joy Christians feel on the day Jesus was born, explained Scarlet Munoz Ramirez, professor of history at Regina University.

Evening services and the church are observed in countries such as Mexico, Brazil, Puerto Rico, Bolivia, and Puerto Rico. And in Venezuela, this mass is just one of a series of masses that month held early in the morning.

Ramirez explained that Christmas Eve Mass – which originated in Rome and Spain – is "the most important mass of the year."


Although customs today have a lot of joy and memories for people, the region's sordid colonial past is at the heart of the meaning of December 24 today.

"The roots are religious, no doubt," said Professor Antonio Torres-Ruiz of York University's Latin America and Caribbean Research Center during a telephone interview.

The Posadas, for example, were part of the Catholic Church's evangelization effort in the sixteenth century, according to Ramirez, a specialist in colonial history in Mexico.

In general, settlers used these month-long rituals, cribs, and carols as a way to spread Catholicism to indigenous peoples and slave populations – in countries such as modern Mexico, Colombia, Bolivia, and Peru.

Las posadas
Each holding a candle, hundreds of people attend the march on Thursday, December 8, 2011 at Las Posadas Celebration in Porterville, California. (AP Photo / The Porterville Recorder, Chieko Hara)

Observing the cultures of indigenous peoples, Torres-Ruiz said that "while Christian tradition is important, it is not the only one." Villagomez agreed that Christmas practices largely helped shape the religious composition of Latin America.

Torres-Ruiz further explained that Christmas evangelism rituals were a bit unnecessary in places like Cuba and Brazil, where the settlers, unfortunately, decimated the indigenous peoples more.

"This reduces the importance of Christmas for some of these peoples," Torres-Ruiz said, adding that in Cuba, Christmas in general is another secular holiday.


But despite its colonial past, the practice of gathering on Christmas Eve still remains largely out of place today – even if families are not religious.

“Traditionally, you are usually in the same town as your families,” said Villagomez, adding that “if, say, grandmother were still alive, everyone would gather at her house and it would become a party because you have (relatives). ). ) of all ages. "

She explained that, unlike Canada or the US, Latinx countries have nothing like Boxing Day. "For people to celebrate a little earlier on December 24, they have 25 days to rest and recover, because on the 26th you get back to work, "she said.

Ramirez agreed and said that on Christmas Day, people tend to like leftovers and families tend to get together, but "it's very, very informal. It's nothing like Nochebuena."

She and Torres-Ruiz referred to Christmas Eve as "the most important date for families to reunite and meet in one place" – very similar to Canadian and American Thanksgiving, which does not exist in Latin America.

For Latinx families in Canada and Central America today, the handful of Christmas celebrations during December became a month-long excuse to catch up with the family, get a bunch of presents and start ending the year with loved ones. .

And since the whole month is so Christmas-centered, Villagomez laughed because, in Latin America, "you can't do anything. It's a lot of parties."


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