An Introduction to Noche Buena

An Introduction to Noche Buena

A deep dive into the Christmas Eve dinner Filipinos hold dear.

If buenas noche means good night in Spanish, then what does Noche Buena mean? When translated, it means “evening of goodness,” and refers to the eve of Christ’s birth. For Filipinos, however, it also refers to the special meal prepared and eaten with family on Christmas Eve. This practice is steeped in tradition and has been celebrated since the introduction of Christianity, during the Spanish occupation, more than 300 years ago. In spite of its foreign roots, this practice evolved over time; blending past practices with present times, Noche Buena became an entirely Filipino tradition. 

To understand Noche Buena, one must first attend mass. In the Philippines, there is the tradition of Simbang Gabi or Evening Mass, which begins on the 16th of December and culminating with the Christmas Eve mass on the 24th known as the Misa de Gallo. All of the masses are usually held between 3 to 5 A.M, except for the Misa de Gallo, which is held at—or close to—midnight. It is believed that those who diligently attend all nine masses will have their prayers granted.

Related: 12 Festive Dishes for a Merry Christmas Feast

It was customary back then — now, not so much — to fast before going to mass, which is why vendors would often flock outside churches during this time. It is here that they would peddle traditional Christmas eats such as the bibingka, a rice cake cooked over coals and topped with salted eggs, cheese, butter, and coconut shavings; or the puto bumbong, made from violet rice steamed vertically through short bamboo stalks and, similarly topped with coconut shavings but this time with the addition of brown sugar. These, too, would find their way to the dining table for Noche Buena.  

Back then, most people fasted the entire day, so their first and only meal on the 24th would be the Noche Buena, which would make it that much more special. After hearing mass, families would rush home and prepare their special Christmas dishes, most of which have been cooked throughout the day.

Compared to Philippine fiestas, which are a grand gathering of people around a neighborhood, Noche Buena is a splendid feast on a more intimate level. Where fiestas have old friends and new acquaintances alike, Noche Buena is a celebration to be had with just family.

Much of the dishes found in a Noche Buena are of Spanish descent. Traditionally, it wouldn’t be considered a Noche Buena without the ham. The hoc shiu ham, known also simply as Chinese ham, is a bone-in ham cooked in pineapple juice (other recipes use beer or a combination of the two), baked, and then glazed with a combination of sugar and the ham’s leftover drippings. This and queso de bola, or Edam cheese, would be eaten with hot pieces of pandesal (soft bread rolls). Never one to shy away from sweet and salty combinations, many Filipino households would also prepare ensaymada—a light bun covered in butter, sugar, and a sprinkling of cheese—with a side of tsokolate eh, a thick hot chocolate made by mashing pure chocolate tablets in water or milk, and thickening it up with finely ground peanuts. 

Alongside these staples are other traditional mains introduced by the Spanish, particularly poultry dishes with varying combinations of stuffing. There’s the relleno, or stuffed chicken, or the galantina, a steamed version of stuffed chicken that’s often served cold. Stuffed turkey was also a dish of choice back then but has since mostly died out. For beef, there’s morcon, a beef roll stuffed with eggs, sausages, carrots and pickles, and served with a hearty gravy, and there’s also lengua, ox tongue stewed with mushrooms and olives. And for pork, the ultimate celebratory dish, the lechon

As the country continued to progress, various influences would shape the Filipino Noche Buena. The arrival of the Americans would introduce not only the christmas tree but also other pastries to sweeten the meal: pies, cookies, and the constantly-gifted fruitcake. 

The most interesting influences, however, are the ones that originated from home. As families celebrated, main dishes would change from household to household, revolving around mom’s or grandma’s specialty dish.  Moreover, Noche Buena not only celebrates Christmas but also the food landscape of the Philippines. Regions with ample supply of seafood would use milk fish instead of chicken for their relleno. In parts of the Visayas, the roast chicken is replaced with chicken inasal, which is marinated in Philippine lime, coconut vinegar, and annatto oil, and then grilled. As a rice eating nation, the grain would always find its way in the meal. Families would celebrate with arroz caldo, a rice porridge made with chicken and ginger, or local kakanin, a variety of rice cakes like the bibingka and puto bumbong. For Filipinos, there must always be rice in their Noche Buena. 

The Noche Buena is the culmination of the entire Christmas season for Filipinos. All roads lead to it. Amidst the countless parties and reunions happening throughout that time, Noche Buena with the family is that one thing you cannot miss—which is why most people return to their provinces to celebrate. And, with the ongoing pandemic and travel restrictions, this might seem difficult for those living abroad or in the city but strangely enough, it isn’t. Filipinos are a resilient bunch and this dedication to a tradition has them preparing to go virtual, whether it's attending the simbang gabi and misa de gallo, or celebrating a Christmas Eve meal with their families.  

So what does the Filipino Noche Buena mean? It’s a celebration of Christ’s birth that brings together different culinary and cultural aspects of a country all in one night of goodness.

For more delicious recommendations and recipes for Christmas, see our Festive Feasts page.


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