Nochebuena celebrations in latin America

Nochebuena celebrations are no joke in Latin America. Here, fun is serious business!

Nochebuena literally translates to ‘good night’ and is the Spanish expression for Christmas Eve. It is a major festive celebration within Latin American culture. For many, December 24 is a much bigger event than December 25. In fact, Christmas Eve is the big day for most folks across the region and for those with Latin roots. It is the day (and night) when families and friends prepare, gather and celebrate until well after midnight. December 25 then becomes more of a day to rest and recover from the Christmas celebrations!

Types of food served, traditions observed and order of festivities may vary from country to country, but several elements are common across the region. The most important element is family. Nochebuena is indeed a good night to spend with loved ones. Let’s explore some of the traditions associated with Nochebuena.

Nochebuena celebrations: The food

  • Tamales: In Mexico, across Central America and in parts of South America, this is a Christmas must-have. Tamales are made from cornmeal dough rolled with ground seasoned meat and (sometimes) beans. The mixture is wrapped in corn husk and steamed. Making tamales is a time-consuming process, made slightly easier when there are more hands on deck. Tamaladas (tamale-making parties) are a fun way to get the work done while passing time with friends and family.
  • Champurrado: A thick Mexican hot chocolate drink made from water or milk and mixed with Mexican chocolate and sugar. Ground maize flour is added to give extra thickness.
  • Pozole: A stew made with chilies, pork (sometimes chicken too) and hominy (dried maize kernels). This dish dates back to pre-Columbian times and can be a daily meal or dressed up a bit for special celebrations.
  • Pavo: Turkey
  • Mole: A savory chocolate sauce to serve with the turkey (or other meats)
  • Buñuelos: A sweet Christmas delight which is essentially a fried sweet dough fritter. In some countries they are round and in others, flat. Both shapes come sugared, unless it’s the cheese-flavoured ones popular in Colombia.
  • Lechón Asado made in a Caja China: In the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Cuba, no Nochebuena would be complete without the addition of the whole roasted pig. The meat is cooked in a special grill called a Caja China (a special outdoor roasting oven that uses coal).

Nochebuena celebrations: The religious aspect

  • Las Posadas: Las Posadas, which translates to the inns or the shelters, are mini-processions. Children and adults don costumes to reenact the biblical story of Jesus’ parents, Mary and Joseph, searching for a place to sleep on their way to Bethlehem. The posadas traditionally start on December 16 and last for the nine nights up to December 24. Each night, a different home hosts the posada party by singing songs and offering seasonal foods such as hot tamales. On the final night, at the posada house, a baby Jesus is put into a manger. Soon after, participants will head off to the misa de gallo.
  • Misa de Gallo: Translated as the mass of the rooster is the Christmas Eve midnight mass. In some countries, like Venezuela, the misa de gallo is the last of the dawn masses held on the nine days leading to Christmas Eve. For Hispanic Catholics, the misa de gallo is a most important part of the Nochebuena celebration, and families ensure they attend the service together.

Nochebuena celebrations: Some fun traditions

  • Piñata: The piñata is steeped in Catholic and Maya tradition. The round ‘pot-shaped’ piñata symbolizes evil and the traditional ones have seven cones sticking out, which stand for the seven deadly sins. The cones are brightly coloured and have pretty streamers attached to represent the temptations of evil. Participants beat the piñata (with a stick of virtue) to show the struggle against evil temptations. The reward for winning against evil is the shower of fruit and candies from inside!
  • Poinsettias: Also known as Flor de Nochebuena is the beautiful red flower adopted in Mexico as a Christmas tradition. These flowers decorate homes and church altars across the world during the festive season. When the poinsettia leaves turn their enchanting, vivid red, you know Christmas is near.
  • La Polvora: Fireworks are not just for New Year’s Eve, they can be enjoyed on Nochebuena too!
  • Dominos: Playing dominos on Nochebuena is a longstanding part of the night that many families from Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic embrace.
  • Exchange of gifts: After mass and dinner, it’s already the wee hours of December 25, so why not exchange a few gifts with loved ones? Although celebrating Santa is also quite common, many families still place more emphasis on the Tres Reyes Magos festivity. (On the night of January 5, children will leave their shoes out in anticipation of the gifts brought to them by the three Magi).
Nochebuena celebrations: Fun traditions

‘Nochebuena’ or ‘Noche Buena’???

You may have seen two different spellings for this festive occasion. Some places refer to it as Nochebuena, while other break it into the two-word version of Noche Buena. Which is correct? Well, according to the website cómo-se-escribe.com, which is dedicated to teaching the correct way to write words and expressions, the December 24 celebration is known as ‘Nochebuena’. ‘Noche Buena’, however, refers to a night that is particularly great for someone for whatever reason. According to the Royal Spanish Academy, ‘Nochebuena’ is the noche de la víspera de Navidad: Christmas Eve.

However you choose to spell it, just make sure you celebrate to the max with loved ones!

Want to learn more about Nochebuena; or share the traditions of this festive occasion with a younger learner? Check out my Nochebuena Woorkbook. It includes a culture reading, colouring page, word puzzles and a fill-in-the-blank song sheet. Get your copy here!

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I am a Latin American Studies teacher, teaching Latin American History and Politics and Basic Spanish. I love reading, writing, teaching and travelling.  Travel over the Andes with me to explore the diverse culture of Latin America.

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