The Origins of Noche Buena
Illustration by Zach Borromeo
Noche Buena is much-awaited among Filipinos. Even those living or working abroad take time to go home, reunite with their families and loved ones, and share the midnight meal over laughter, storytelling, gift-giving and singing of Christmas carols. It is an enduring tradition that is not lost in every Filipino wherever they are despite the advent of modernism and fast-changing technology. Noche Buena brings us to the Filipinos’ family-oriented values.
The traditional Christmas Eve feast, which we Filipinos got from Spain, is known as the Noche Buena, which is Spanish for “night of goodness”. The feast commemorates the “good night” when the Virgin Mary gave birth to the Christ Child, usually celebrated after the nine-day Simbang Gabi.
though many are of Hispanic origin, there is one element of the Christmas Eve feast that is undeniably Filipino: rice. Even before the Spaniards arrived, Filipino natives would celebrate the year-end harvest with this crop as a symbol of prosperity. Whole, ground, or sticky and sweetened, rice was always present at the dinner table as an offering to the gods.
Additionally, amid the Nativity’s joyous moment, Filipino families gather together to partake of a special meal of popular Noche Buena favorites – ham and queso de bola, salad, barbecue, pasta, cake, desserts, chocolate drink and wine for the traditional toast.
In many rural provinces, the enduring practice for parishioners and families is to greet each other after the Midnight Mass in the decorated well-lit church patio where stalls sell native delicacies such as bibingka, puto, bumbong, palitaw, suman, lumpia, pancit and salabat after Mass. Children, in their new shoes and dresses, kiss the hands of the elderly as a sign of respect and greeting, and in turn are given some amount or gift in the spirit of sharing. Many Filipino homes share Christmas blessings by receiving well-wishers and guests.
It can get quite tricky, complex, or simple depending on how it is in the family when it comes to assembling the perfect Noche Buena. These are just a few things we deemed to be relevant as Filipinos. We do not ask for a lot during this occasion; even an extravagant set-up is just a bonus. All that is important is that the family is complete, having the usual, having a laugh, and celebrating as if nothing can go wrong in the world.