Noche Buena, Christmas feasts, and Filipino Culture
by Jon G. Malek
A noche buena meal
Pancit Ilonggo style
The -ber months are here, the last four months of the year during which the Christmas season is celebrated in the Philippines. In the diaspora, it is not as openly celebrated – there is an unstated rule in North America that you do not lay out your Christmas decorations until after Halloween – but the months still bear importance for Filipinos. It is a highly anticipated holiday, perhaps the most in Philippine culture, and is the time of the year that the love for pageantry and celebration are best demonstrated. Homes are lined with bright, flashing lights, parolsline windows, and models of the Nativity are displayed in front yards. Indeed, no Filipino household is more identifiable from the outside than the Christmas season, almost the day after Halloween passes.
The feast of noche buena – the feast had after the midnight mass on Christmas Eve – is a fusion of Hispanized Catholicism and pre-Christian indigenous practice. Doreen Fernandez, a Philippine cultural historian and food author, suggests that the latter was likely tied to older celebrations surrounding the rice harvest, a time that was celebrated for the bounty and life-giving sustenance it gave. It wouldn’t have been much of a stretch for Filipinos to attach such feasts to Christmas, a feast introduced by the Spanish in celebration of sustenance and salvation for one’s soul. Thus, while some Filipino families may celebrate with Spanish dishes (rellenong manok, leche flan, embutido, lechon, ensaimada) it is also accompanied by the ancient life staple of most Filipinos: rice, in its many forms.
Reflecting this surviving ancient heritage surrounding rice and the importance of rice as a staple in Philippine cuisine is the hearty presence of a variety of rice cakes, such as puto bumbong and its steaming bamboo tubes, golden baked bibingka, puto topped with a small bit of cheese, kutsinta, or suman wrapped in banana or coconut leaves. These are all in addition to obligatory tray of fried rice. Individual and family recipes for fried rice are as diverse as similar recipes for pancit.
Just as fried rice (or simple plain white rice) is ever-present at a Filipino Christmas feast, so is a noodle dish, whether it be pancit Canton, pancit palabok, or Filipino-style spaghetti. The term pancit expresses the Chinese influence on Filipino cuisine, coming from a word in the Hokkien dialect in Fujian province pien-e-set meaning “something easy to cook.” The Chinese influence shows itself in other noodle types: bihon, miki, miswa, and sotanghon are all Chinese names for noodle types. Pancit – the Filipino dish – took on a unique Filipino flair because of what ingredients are locally available in the Philippines.
This is something so common in Filipino cuisine, the adaptation of outside-inspired dishes to the tastes, preferences, and availability of food in the Philippines. In 2021, the Philippine government tried to standardize the recipes for adobo, sinigang, sisig, lechon, and other Filipino dishes. Each of those listed are cooked differently in the homes and restaurants catering to Filipino foods. Take adobo, for example. Even before soy sauce was introduced to the Philippines (and before the Spanish arrived), a form of adobo (adobong puti) was already widely cooked, using only suka (vinegar) and water to boil the meat. Today, one often finds it with either manok (chicken) or baboy (pork); some put only garlic along with the meat, while others yet might have other vegetables such as bell peppers, potatoes, etc.
This variety in a recipe is mostly the result of where the cook or chef comes from in the Philippines and what ingredients were easily available there. Sometimes the household gardens in the province supplied the ingredients, or else the local palengke, but the ingredients almost always were, and continue to be, locally available. Even in the diaspora, where globalized food chains today can supply even some of the most difficult to find ingredients, Filipinos will search out what they are familiar with. On the other hand, early immigrants to Canada in the 1960s and 1970s, when such food chains were not so well-sourced, adapted and adopted whatever was available.
Doreen Fernandez noted this highly personalized nature, too. She wrote on how Christmas memories and traditions are as much personal and individual as they are a part of wider cultural practices. In one of her articles on the noche buena, Fernandez notes that every family has a different tradition as to what foods are served. Often it depends on what locale it is and what is easily available, or upon which dishes members of the family specialize.
In her twenty years of writing on Filipino food, Doreen Fernandez developed a sharp understanding of the nature and soul of the cuisine and its deeply personal experiences across the Philippines. She summarized the words of one of her co-authors: “the experience of food is ephemeral. What one puts into the mouth is the end result of a process that starts with the sea, the soil, animal life. In the act of cooking, we make statements about ourselves – about our understanding of relationships between ingredients; about our perception of taste and appropriateness. In the act of eating, we ingest the environment, but do not stop at that, for we Filipinos make eating the occasion for ritual – and ritual the occasion for eating” (emphasis mine).
Christmas is one of the best examples of how pre-Hispanic, ancient Filipino traditions continue in the modern world. The values of family cohesiveness, communal support, and celebration of life are common in Filipino households and reach their expressive intensity with Christmas. But the diversity of tradition, celebration, and menu reflect the rich diversity of Filipino culture. There is not just one that can be applied to all Filipinos; that diversity adds complexity, beauty, uniqueness to Filipino culture. For even if there is a variety of practices of noche buena or in the style with which the rice is fried or the pancit prepared, there is no doubt that they are Filipino.
I end off with a wonderfully expressive quote from Ms. Fernandez: “Noche buena, night of goodness, is thus not only hallowed by the birth of Christ, by Christian tradition and family customs, but by life forces earlier than anyone remembers, by stirrings of the Filipino ethos. It is indeed, for rich and poor, a meal meaningful beyond memory.”
From me and my family, Marilyn and Noah, I wish you all the merriest Christmas.
Doreen G. Fernandez, Tikim: Essays on Philippine food and culture (Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2020)
“DTI moves to set national standards for cooking adobo, other PH dishes,” Rappler 10 July 2021 (https://www.rappler.com/life-and-style/food-drinks/dti-set-national-standards-cooking-adobo-philippine-dishes/)
Jon Malek is an Assistant Professor of History at Providence University College. His research is on the history of the Philippines and the Filipino diaspora. His current writing projects include a book on the history of Filipinos in Canada and a project on Filipino food and culture.
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