The Origins of Noche Buena and Other Filipino Holiday FeastsNovember 4, 2014
You can tell a lot about a culture by how and what they choose to eat. In the Philippines, apart from having up to five meals a day (six, if you’re the type who likes to keep noshing past midnight), food-centered festivities take up a good portion of our calendar. And judging by the customs that govern the three most prominent ones, there’s a bigger story behind each of them that goes beyond simply choosing the best-tasting dishes to put on the communal table:
Town fiestas abound throughout the year, and many city kids have experienced traveling all the way to the province of their forebears at least once to attend one. A typical town fiesta is a feast for the senses: colorful flags, streamers, and other such ornaments adorn the houses, the local marching band churns out popular tunes as they parade around, and the tables of hosting families groan under the weight of the ubiquitous lechon and dishes of pancit and dinuguan.
The practice of holding a fiesta dates all the way back to colonial times. Since our Hispanic colonizers were big on Catholicism and its rituals, the church pretty much presided over every aspect of community life. Plenty of towns were named after Catholic saints (and remain to be so), thus the town fiesta was held on the patron saint’s feast day. Prior to the actual feast, however, a series of nine-day prayers or novenas in honor of the patron saint were observed in church. This would all culminate in a high mass on the saint’s birthday, and then the feasting could begin.
Fiestas might also have been as much a political exercise as they were a religious one. In the same way that The Hunger Games’ Capitol kept rebellion at bay (at least for a while) through pageantry and spectacle, the Spaniards occasionally gave the locals a noisy, colorful show (as well as a taste of the lavish fare that was usually denied them) to momentarily relieve the daily drudgery of back-breaking work (and thus distract them from thoughts of rebellion, at least momentarily).
Preparations for the town fiesta normally took place months before, with pigs and chickens being earmarked for the occasion so that they could be fattened up. Lechon was a popular choice for the centerpiece since both the Spaniards and the Filipinos liked pork. The dinuguan was developed so that even the blood drained from the pig did not go to waste. (Filipinos who lived in the Spanish colonial era were centuries ahead of the nose-to-tail movement since their colonizers kept the choice parts of the animals for themselves, compelling them to come up with ways to cook the remaining parts like the liver, intestines, etc.) Pancit, on the other hand, had been a staple since the pre-colonial days, back when Chinese settlers brought their noodle dishes over as their baon from the mainland.
2. Noche Buena
As evidenced by the Christmas carols that start playing in the malls in September, the Yuletide season is a big deal in the Philippines. And while the overall Christmas celebration in the country is a mish-mash of international and local influences, the prevailing one, at least when it comes to the Christmas Eve dinner, is Spanish (surprise, surprise).
The traditional Christmas Eve feast is referred to as the “Noche Buena,” which is Spanish for “night of goodness.” Like the fiesta, the Noche Buena is also a time for extended families to gather together at one house to partake of the feast. But while modern Filipino families can have their Noche Buena at any time on Christmas Eve, it wasn’t always that way.
The Noche Buena actually came into being because the Spanish friars required Filipino churchgoers to fast until Christmas morning back in the 16th century. Since the natives were usually very hungry after coming back from the Christmas midnight Mass (and since any hour after midnight was technically considered to be part of the next day’s morning), they conjured up the nocturnal feast before going back to bed.
Also, while the modern-day Christmas dinner is dominated by Spanish favorites like jamon and embotido, one crucial element does have purely Filipino roots: the kakanin. Sweet, sticky, and rice-based, the bibingka and puto bumbong mainstays date all the way back to pre-colonial times, when natives would offer up glutinous rice cakes to their gods at the end of the year.
3. Media Noche
To cap off a year’s worth of celebration, we have the Media Noche. While certain Spanish influences are still very much present in this type of feast (the name itself is Spanish for “midnight,” a nod to the feast taking place after the midnight Mass on New Year’s Eve), the forces behind choosing the dishes for a traditional menu are Chinese in origin.
It was (and in some ways, still is) widely believed among Filipinos that what one is serving and/or eating on New Year’s Eve will determine their fortune for the coming year. Thus, they borrowed a lot of symbology from the Chinese in the process: 12 round fruits are always present on the table to symbolize prosperity for all 12 months of the new year (round is the preferred shape because a circle has no end, therefore implying never-ending wealth), pineapples are favored centerpieces for their scales that resemble golden coins, noodles are served for a long life that’s uninterrupted by illness, and sticky desserts are consumed so that families will continue to “stick” together.
Food is undoubtedly central to us Filipinos. So is tradition. When you put the two together, it makes for a vibrant portrait of the values that define us as a people: a deep, abiding love for family and community, as well as the tenacity in finding reasons to celebrate despite all that we have had to endure as a nation.