Traditional Cuban Christmas Guide

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Jorge Castillo: The Christmas celebrations in Cuba were very similar to those in the United States. On Noche Buena (Christmas Eve) the families would gather together and have a GREAT feast. Our families are very large and there was always an abundance of food.

Glenn Lindgren: Noche Buena means Good Night. For Cubans, it's all about family and friends, a time to celebrate life with good food, good music, and love. It is truly the most beautiful and heart-warming celebration of the entire year.

Raúl Musibay: The roasted pig was always the main attraction. Along with the pig, we had black beans, white rice, yuca con mojo (mojo is a type of marinade with garlic, onions, and sour orange), some salad and of course lots of Cuban bread.

Pig on the Roaster
Everybody likes to get a taste or two before the pig is done!
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Cuban Christmas Traditions

"Lechon" by Tony Mendoza
It is the night before Christmas, and all through the “towns” of Miami, in the hamlets of Hialeah, Sweetwater, Kendall, and Westchester, in backyards large and small, Cubans are carrying on the oldest and most cherished tradition of their homeland: the Noche Buena feast. For many, the biggest celebration of the year takes place on this Christmas Eve night, still celebrated in the traditional way with a huge party, dozens of friends, an extended family, and the main attraction: a whole roasted pig.

The women of the family have been working on this feast for days. They have shopped the local markets to purchase plantains, yuca, and sour oranges. The quest for the perfect plantain, one that is completely green and devoid of any spots, can itself consume several hours. The women have cleaned and re-cleaned their homes from top to bottom. They have spent hours in the kitchen preparing the desserts before the big day: large bowls of cascos, orange, guava, and grapefruit shells in sweet, heavy syrup; and baskets of buñuelos, fried sweet dough that is a must for Christmas.

The men of the family just keep out of the way until a day or two before the big party when it is their job to procure a pig. At one time, there were several places that sold live hogs to the public, particularly along Krome Avenue on the extreme western edge of Miami. In the days before Christmas, these small “farms” fed a steady stream of customers who selected their pig “on the hoof” and then stood by as the "farmer" butchered and cleaned the chosen hog. Today, just two of these operations remain, so picking up a pig in the days before Christmas means waiting in long and sometimes contentious lines.

On the night before the big day, everyone helps clean and prepare pig. The man of the house with the most experience, the grandfather or father, uses a hammer and a machete to crack the backbone, splaying the pig out like a butterfly. They carefully remove any hair or bristles that the butcher has left behind with hot water and a straight razor. The skin of the pig is a delicacy and there is nothing as disturbing as some "stubble" to ruin the experience.

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Checking the pig
Just checking to see if the pig is done.
Classic car
A Classic car decorated for Christmas!

By late afternoon, you can walk through any neighborhood in Miami and smell the wonderful aroma of roasting pork as the smoke drifts from dozens of backyards. Neighborhood friends pass by occasionally to check on the pig’s progress, drink a beer or some sidra (hard apple cider from Spain), eat fresh chicharrones from the local bodega, enjoy turrones from Spain, talk, laugh, and listen to music.

By early evening, people start arriving for the party and the real celebration begins. On this night, as on all others, there are two groups of people celebrating Noche Buena, the "party givers" and the "party goers.” Some people stay home and host these elaborate parties, while others make the rounds from house to house enjoying the celebrations and spreading holiday cheer.

A traditional Noche Buena party lasts until the early hours of the morning. One interruption still observed by many: attending the “misa del gallo” or "Mass of the Rooster" at midnight. Once mass is over, many people return to the parties to continue the celebration late into the night.

Once cleaned and “cracked,” the hog is salted and baptized with a quart or more of mojo marinade and left to sit chilled the entire night in the “Florida room” with the air conditioner on HI, until the meat is infused with the garlic and citrus flavor of the mojo. By morning, the Florida room is fragrant and the pig has a happy smile on its face.

All over Miami, the men of the family wake up early this day, the only day of the year when most Cuban men actually cook. They gather in the backyard to set up the concrete blocks for the pig roaster, light the charcoal, and begin the all-day process of roasting the pig.

Unlike a Hawaiian luau, Miami Cubans do not dig a pit in the ground, cover the pig with wet banana leaves and hot rocks, and bury it. The ground in Miami is solid coral below about three inches of top soil. You would need a jackhammer to dig a pit and then you would probably hit water after the first foot. Even in Cuba in areas blessed with thick topsoil, people usually roast pigs above ground on a rotating spit or even more traditionally in a "pig roaster" made with concrete blocks.

The pig itself is sandwiched in a metal holder that keeps the pig above the heat of the coals, always banked into the four corners of the roaster. In this slow roasting process, the cardinal sin is allowing any coals to come to rest directly under the pig. For Noche Buena, the pigs are large because appetites tend to be even larger. Weighing anything from 80 to 120 pounds or more, a pig takes all day to roast, a process that requires little human intervention. While they do not need to watch the roasting pig constantly, the men do need to be available nearby to prevent any flare-ups or other disasters. Unburdened by a need for real vigilance, the men follow the time-honored tradition: sitting around drinking beer, listening to music, telling jokes, enjoying the sunshine and only occasionally casting an eye on the roasting pig.

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