Literally meaning “good night” but not to be confused with the greeting “buenas noche” in Spanish. Noche Buena to Filipinos and other countries around the world with ties of colonization to Spain, is the Christmas Eve meal where families gather round the table to feast on traditional dishes of the season.
Why Christmas Eve and not Christmas Day? This is because Catholics attend a midnight mass on Christmas Eve to welcome the day Christ was born. Families heard mass together for this special day, and the big meal came before that.
In the old days when my mother was responsible for the Noche Buena meal, we had to have her chicken gallantina or relleno. She did the de-boning of the native chicken herself, a skill she learned from her mother. This skill was also handed down to a sister and a cousin, who was only a few years old when he first saw my mother doing it. The chicken had to be marinated while the meat stuffing prepared. Any left-over stuffing was rolled into a log and wrapped in the “sinsal” and cheesecloth for embotido. The chicken would be stuffed, sewn up then wrapped in cheesecloth which was also sewed up to keep the chicken all tight. This was then boiled for hours until the tough native chicken was tender.
We also had pochero, a stew made with various meats boiled and sauteed in a tomato sauce. The broth from this dish was saved for fideos, a soup made with angel hair pasta. This particular soup always reminded us of our grandmother, my Lola Blanca, this was her dish. I remember it from years past, with that “bahay guya” and unhatched eggs sliced in with it. It’s a rich, satisfying soup, perfect for those cold December nights of years past.
My father was in charge of the ham. Weeks before Christmas, he’d buy the ham from the same Chinese deli in Quiapo his side of the family got their ham for years, and it would hang in the kitchen until it was unwrapped days before Christmas. He would soak it for a day or two, changing the water twice daily. Then it would be ready for the cooking in my grandmother’s old, heavy stainless steel laundry basin which was cleaned mercilessly in preparation for its change of role.
Boiled for hours until most of the salt is gone, the water in the ham would still have to be changed several times to get it right. The last boiling was done with several other ingredients to flavor the ham. All of this was done in our backyard, over a wood fire. After they determined it was ready, the skin would be peeled off and the ham would then change hands. This time, it went to my mother who prepared the fat on the topside, scoring it into a diamond pattern, putting the brown sugar and then searing it with a heated and ancient cast-iron syansi with a long handle. Pineapple, cherries and cloves would then be decorate the top and off the ham went again into the oven for a final, quick roast. The whole painstaking process was a joy to watch, and the effort produced a great ham unlike any you can find today.
I loved how the best china, silverware and linens were brought out for the occasion. There was nothing better than to sit at that table groaning with all the good food and the sounds of a family gathering. The food and its preparation just brought us all together as a family and now partaking was only a pleasant experience.
Over the years, there’d be a rotation of other entrees, salads and desserts: a large fish with mayonnaise, mechado, morcon, paella, macaroni salad, fruit salad, potato salad, jalea ube, macapuno, leche flan, pabo embuchado, stuffed turkey, roast pork loin and others I cannot recall right now. We all had a hand in preparing the meals, it was such a joy to just sit and watch my grandmother and parents. I cannot recall the stories my mother told us as she was working, but I remember she always explained things, teaching us her secrets while laughing and enjoying herself.
These were the essentials that made Christmas Noche Buena a traditional one for my family. It wasn’t just the food – it was the bonds of family, from past generations to the next one, that made all the difference. I can only hope the next generations can recall Christmases past just as happily as I do now.