A Latino Christmas is a celebration filled with comfort food, drinks, and good music while friends and family galavant the night away. You may not be familiar with the spirit of Pascuas (holiday) or Navidades (Christmas) but it is a feast for the senses. The joy of the season is felt by our mouth, ears, eyes, and body. My childhood Dominican Christmas was loud, lively, and wildly entertaining. The present celebration of the festivities is more tame, healthy, and Americanized.
Latinos are recognized for their zest of life. Best known to be invigorated people that take life by storm, it is no wonder our energy is infectious. We are as passionate about our politics, music, and life as we are about loved ones. Try to imagine a community taking great enjoyment in their traditions of the season leaving behind a trail of laughter, indulgence, and memories to last a lifetime. This story will offer an inside look into a Latino Christmas, past, and present.
While December 25 is the official day of Christmas in the United States, for my family the big celebration took place the night before. La Noche Buena, Christmas Eve, was the belle of the ball, it was the day we would plan for the entire season. The anticipation of the day was magical as we watched Mom prepare the main event for the day. Waking up to the smell of Pernil (slow-roasted pork shoulder) stuffed with garlic and sofrito, seasoned with love — the scent has traveled with me into my adulthood during this festive time. The music was the alarm letting us know December 24th had arrived at our home. My parents moving their bodies in unison to the rhythms of Fernando Villalona, Juan Luis Guerra, Celia Cruz, Hector Lavoe or El Gran Combo was a special moment in time. Our home was dressed in reds, greens, along with the shimmer of gold and silver. Everyone was happy during those weeks of the year, it brought a sense of togetherness. The warmth of our tiny apartment was mostly fueled by the love and energy of people looking to spend quality time together.
All around the living and kitchen area were chestnuts, concord grapes, cheese and crackers to satisfy the groans of a stomach waiting all day for the roast to be cooked. Meanwhile, our help to peel eggs and potatoes was an expectation. We did not mind, as it was a treat to see how the beets and seasoning were blended in creating our traditional, Ensalada Rusa — the pink potato salad that some of us know and love. The fun did not stop there; my sisters and I battled for a chance to be a taste tester of the infamous Moro de Guandules, a delightful blend of rice and pigeon peas that can leave one in a state of immense bliss. This feast was accompanied by Pasteles en Hoja, a Dominican plantain and beef pocket made days in advance of the holiday. Desserts like Flan (Creme Carmel), Bizcocho Dominicano (Dominican Cake),Tres Leches (Three-Milk Cake), and Pudin de Pan (Spiced Bread Pudding) were all the rage for many families.
The night would not be complete without a shot of Coquito and Jose Feliciano’s “Feliz Navidad” playing in the background. The well-known Puerto Rican Christmas drink, Little Coconut is a favorite of Latinos from the Carribean. The blend of coconut milk, sweetened condensed milk, evaporated milk, cream of coconut, vanilla extract, and ground cinnamon and rum (optional) is a little piece of heaven. It’s not really known who originated the recipe. To this day, a network of people exists that make the home-made spiced eggnog, passing along the recipe to family, friends, and friends of friends. It’s one of many long-time traditions plenty of fellow Latinos indulge as they look forward to the Christmas holidays. Adults in the family dance and talk into the wee hours of the night celebrating Christmas past and present. Meanwhile, children are put to sleep with convincing tales of how Santa’s arrival would be in jeopardy if they did not close their eyes. These are the memories that come back each year and cherished forever.
Christmas of the present is a hybrid of the Latino and American holidays. Each year, my family buys a tree to decorate in a fabulous manner. Hot chocolate and tunes on our playlist remind us of the sounds of the seasons. We initiate the holidays by watching the Macy’s parade starting at 9:00 am each year on Thanksgiving Day, as we prepare a festive meal. The following weeks are full of Charlie Brown’s Christmas reruns and Hallmark holiday movies making sure to take in all the magic of the season. Since she was four years old, my daughter and I have observed our own annual holiday tradition of a Mother-Daughter Christmas Day: a lunch at our favorite location decorated in Christmas cheer with a day that may include The Nutcracker or The Radio City Rockettes.
As a teenager, she continues to enjoy the special day that adds great joy to our festivities. Christmas Eve is similar to my own growing up, from the menu to ambiance celebrated during my childhood. The attempt to duplicate the recipes brings comfort and happiness demonstrating not all traditions have been lost. Holiday music plays around the house as the aroma of the dishes puts us in the best of moods, bringing us closer together while we enjoy each other’s company.
Fragments of a Latino Christmas are purposely brought into my own family in an effort to pass along some of the customs to my daughter. It is important that I do whatever possible to preserve the essence of the traditions I grew up with so she can pay it to forward to her offspring. The significance of a Latino Christmas is stronger than you may think to plenty of families. Millions of Latinos in the United States assimilate into the American way of life but don’t have to give up an entire identity. The longevity of our culture depends on how we proceed in the future. Remember, passing on customs from generation to generation is what prolongs our cultural existence, keeping intact our place in history.