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Eat, drink, and be merry: Deconstructing the Noche Buena

Eminent historian Fr. Horacio Dela Costa once argued that the two jewels of Philippine culture are our faith and our music. This is most evident in the distinctly Filipino celebration of Christmas. Cacophonies of Christmas carols touching upon the birth and virtues of Jesus Christ and the many holiday festivities permeate the Filipino Christmas scene—even as early as September. However, Christmas also features the third jewel of Filipino culture, our food.

All over the archipelago, as the clock approaches midnight on the 24th of December, a whole table, laden with food—from the classic keso de bola and hamon, to the succulent lechon, and to the macaroni salad—is prepared to cater to everyone in the family. The Noche Buena is as much a hallmark of the Filipino Christmas tradition as the Simbang Gabi devotion or the iconic carols of Jose Mari Chan. But beyond the food, what do our Christmastime staples say about our history?

A feast of our own

Renowned writer and food historian Doreen Fernandez would note in her articles on Filipino food that many of our staple dishes and cooking techniques are actually of foreign origin. The very tradition of Noche Buena is distinctly Hispanic, with many countries in Latin America joining Filipinos every Christmas Eve for a holiday feast. Some traditional Christmas food comes from Spanish roots as well. The Spanish-style hot chocolate, known locally as tablea, graces our breakfast tables during December, while the famous sweet yet savory hamon is an adaptation of the jamon en dulce

“Among the most visible, most discernible and most permanent traces left by foreign cultures on Philippine life is food that is now part of the everyday, and often not recognized as foreign, so thoroughly has it been absorbed into the native lifestyles,” Fernandez explains in her article,  Culture Ingested: Notes on the Indigenization of Philippine Food.

Acclaimed chef and food writer Sandy Daza notes that the Filipino spin on these foreign-influenced dishes can be achieved by the use of native Filipino ingredients, setting it apart from other cuisines. “As long as [the dish] has purely Filipino ingredients…then to me, that’s [considered] a Filipino festive dish,” he explains. Simply put, Filipinos married these influences with local flavors to make them their own. 

For Fernandez, when Filipinos indigenize foreign influences with native ingredients and techniques, we are putting it closer to our hearts. Noche Buena is one such example, as it has organically grown intoa tradition that is distinctly ours. “[The borrowing of foreign influences] was a conscious and yet unconscious cultural reaction, in that borrowers knew that they were cooking foreign dishes while making necessary adaptations, but were not aware that they were transforming the dish and making it their own,” Fernandez says.

Food of Christmas present

A typical Noche Buena is prepared early on the day of Christmas Eve. Chef Sandy reminisces his experience of witnessing his family prepare a Noche Buena feast during his youth. “When I was a kid, my lola would serve us lechon, rellenong manok, paella valenciana, Russian salad, [and] cannelloni,” he recounts. As his love for food grew, he began to tinker with the dishes that he served at the dinner table, often surprising his diners, especially his family, by preparing different cuisines for Noche Buena every year. 

These foods are only as valuable as the memories we associate with them. For Minggoy Hippolito (II, AB-OCM),  he will always remember the Christmas ham that his lola would prepare and cook from scratch. “It was always that one food [that no one in] my family [cannot] resist eating,” he reminisces. Cris Nabayo (II, ISJ-MKT), on the other hand, associates her favorite Noche Buena dish—the classic Filipino-style spaghetti—with the time she spends with her mom making it. “I look forward to my mom cooking it, or if she would instruct me to cook it, I like doing it with her around,” she explains.

But even with the overwhelming love for festive nostalgic eats, Christmas food in the Philippines continues to evolve to adapt to new culinary influences and ever changing palates. Recently, the reinvention of typical Christmas dishes—such as bibingka cheesecakes, cacao rolled into a ball to emulate keso de bola, and lechon stuffed with Kapampangan bringhe—have delighted consumers who are looking for a new spin on their classic favorites.

Gather ‘round the table

“Every time you eat something really good, the first people you’ll think of are your loved ones,” Chef Sandy reckons. Ultimately, the food that people share will mean nothing if it will not be feasted upon with their families and friends. Gathering around in a celebratory mood and sharing each other’s blessing is a true exemplar of the family-orientedness that marks Filipino culture. 

Minggoy further comments, “I saw Christmas food as a symbol of gathering, a symbol that reassured [me] that my whole family will be there,” thanking his lola for influencing him to indulge in Christmas food. As for Cris, she wholeheartedly considers Noche Buena as an occasion that celebrates “the act of love and giving,” a time where people get to “choose the food [that] you’d like to have and of course, share [them] with your family members.”

During the holidays, people do their best to deck the halls with as many bells and whistles as they can, but “you don’t have to create a festive atmosphere because [Christmas is] festive in itself,” Chef Sandy emphasizes, “all you have to do is enhance it by serving very good food.”

Christmas in confinement

Though people are limited from gathering together for a feast, this doesn’t hinder families from cooking their favorite Christmas dishes. Chef Sandy believes that more and more people are discovering a passion for cooking during the lockdown. He identifies it as “confidence-building in the kitchen.” He expounds, “I think the pandemic has [helped open] an artistic [and] culinary side to most individuals at home.”  

But Minggoy believes that the pandemic has more adverse effects on the traditional Christmas feast. “Social gatherings are lessened. [It’s] discouraged to throw a grand party [or] event so that the spread of the virus is lessened,” he shares. With the onslaught of the pandemic drawing in more cases daily, it seems that the big gatherings Filipinos are used to won’t see the light of the parol any time soon. 

In spite of its foreign past, the Filipino Noche Buena has been cemented in our hearts as a jewel of our identity. With all the difficulties brought about by changes in our globalized world, the Noche Buena is a tradition that we can hang on to, a tradition that celebrates heartwarming food and fond memories with our loved ones, and a heritage of the past that celebrates the present, and gives hope for the future.

By Magz Chin

By Deo Cruzada

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