For Cubanos (and many Latin Americans), the highlight of the holiday season is the night of December 24th, otherwise known as La Noche Buena.
It usually begins with a traditional meal of frijoles negros (black beans and rice) and Lechon (roast pig). In the old country, hardy ancestors would cook an entire pig (a time-consuming and somwhat gruesome experience where they'd slowly roast the pig outside over a pit).
In the harried and time-constrained world of today, it's much easier to cook a pork loin. And you don't have to venture outside to prepare tantalizing cocktails for the adults, like the classic Mojito drink, a mixture of Cuban rum, lime, sugar and fresh mint leaves (see the WGN Morning News archive for my famous family recipe) .
My older relatives say when it comes to Noche Buena, nobody put on a bigger culinary production than my great-grandfather, Julio. His bositerous Christmas Eve feasts (known as La Cena) were an Old Havana neighborhood legend.
Here in Chicago, I'm the one preparing a much scaled-down Noche Buena feast (with help from my wonderful Irish wife, Terry). Following my family's centuries-old Cuban recipes, we whip up dinner (with some supplemental Irish mashed-potatoes, of course!) And we light candles and give thanks for our blessings over a magical family dinner.
Afterwards, we usually head off to a special midnight Catholic mass known as Misa del Gallo ("Mass of the Rooster"). By the time you return home, you can definitely hear the roosters crowing - but there's no time for sleep! With a boost from Cafe Cubano, it's time to open the presents. If you're lucky, maybe you're laying your head down on the pillow by 3 or 4 in the morning.
I'm not much of a night owl these days (getting up for my 3:30 AM news shift everyday at WGN-TV). So I usually try to take a long nap to survive the evening. But my kids sure don't mind staying up (fueled by chocolate and the rush of opening presents early). And I love that we're preserving a rich Cuban tradition. Feliz Navidad everybody! Happy Chanukah and happy holidays to all! With best wishes for a happy and healthy 2010.