My Holiday is Christmas

Photo courtesy of Natalie Suarez

The last year has been absolutely exhausting.

Look, I get that you’re here to read some warm and hopeful message about Christmas, about togetherness and peace on Earth and the magical feeling that a light dusting of snow on Christmas morning makes you feel…

After the last year - an especially divisive one - I am feeling drained. I want to believe more than ever in the warm and hopeful message of the holiday season; it’s just going to be…hard.

I’m from Florida, and I celebrate the holidays a little differently.

I am a Cuban American. I was born and raised in this great country, by my loving parents and grandparents that sought political asylum from communist Cuba. They brought with them a drive to better themselves, and a belief that if you work hard and are a good person you well get far in life. They also brought with them the traditions and language of the Cuban people that I carry with me daily - things I try to share with as many people as are willing to listen to our music, eat our food, and misunderstand our Spanish.

Of these, the tradition of Noche Buena that they brought with them is special.

Noche Buena roughly translates to “a Good Night”, and non-Latinos know it as the “Night Before Christmas”. Except, for us, we’re not quiet church mice. Noche Buena is a boisterous, rich-food-and-strong-alcohol fueled dance party that celebrates family and the zest of life.

 (I’m sure Noche Buena has some much nicer, less noisy origins but I don’t know of them.)

Natalie Suarez's Noche Buena lechon

All photos courtesy of Natalie Suarez

I was the first of my family to leave the nest and study at a university that was not close to home. Noche Buena was something I always came back to, and always used as an opportunity to remember where I came from, and get caught up in the changes in my family’s life. I would have a drink with my dad while he roasted the lechon (or hog, as y’all say in the South) and hear how things at work were going. I’d chat with my stepmother about her family - how my stepsister and her kids were doing - while I helped her set out the buffet spread that the family was to enjoy until the lechon was ready. And I would awkwardly try to dance salsa music with my brother, really just doing our best to keep up with my cousins that were better versed in the two-step than us, and laugh and poke fun at how bad we were at this.

Natalie Suarez's family at Noche Buena

Now, as an adult living in Atlanta, this will be my first Christmas and Noche Buena that I won’t be together with my family. And, like I said, I am tired, and I want the reassurance from my family that yes, we are united, and things will get better, as long as you are a good person and you work hard.

I am spending Christmas with my boyfriend’s family this year in South Carolina. It’ll be a new experience for me, and one that I am looking forward to despite the homesickness I know I will feel. He and his family have never celebrated a Cuban Christmas, and I intend to go whole lechon (see what I did there) with it. I want to share the traditions of my family, my people, and those of a country that most people only know of for its rum, cigars, and its questionable political system. I want to incite the magic of Noche Buena in my second family, to rejuvenate them from this exhausting year, and hopefully, I can feel some of the magic for myself.

Because Noche Buena and the holidays ARE about unity. It’s about being together, and sharing in each other’s joys and traditions, and building each other up despite our differences. To listen closely to each other while near a warm fire, and love without question and remind people how much they mean to you, even if you see them once a year.

 I think a lot of us need Christmas right now.

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