La Nochebuena means  "The Good Night", the night that Jesus Christ was born. It's Christmas Eve, and it is a big deal in Latin America and Spain, much more than Christmas day. 

In Cuba BC (before Castro) we celebrated with a "Cena de Nochebuena", a wonderful feast which took place late at night. Then we went to "La Misa del Gallo" or Midnight Mass and continued to celebrate the season until January 6th, El Dia de los Reyes Magos, when the Three Kings would bring presents to the children. 

Fidel and his Communist comarades did not allow Christmas,  because of that Religion thing totalitarians are so against. However, people stubbornly insisted on celebrating, even under Fidel's oppression and with very little to celebrate with.  So the Communists cleverly scheduled other celebrations (harvest, the Revolution) for the same December dates. Just like the ancient Church scheduled Christmas celebration near the pagan winter solstice celebrations.

 On our last Nochebuena in Cuba,  I remember quietly peaking over the wall that separated us from our neighbors, and watching them celebrate. It was 1967 and our family was not celebrating anything, my father had been sent to a “labor camp” for the crime of wanting to leave Cuba, and my mother was doing all she could just to feed us. 

The neighbors had put together tables and old doors on top of barrels to create one huge table, covered with various table cloths, at which all the family could be seated. It was late at night and along with the one spot light at the corner of the roof, which poorly illuminated the concrete patio, there were kerosene lamps illuminating the faces of the people gathered together to celebrate. I thought they looked beautiful, as they laughed and enjoyed themselves.

I couldn’t really distinguish the food on the table, but I pretended it held all the traditional foods, a roasted pig, plantains, rice, black beans, wine…. Not likely since  food was rationed and very hard to come by. Our neighbors had probably saved up provisions and pooled resources with other relatives for this celebration. There might have been some cans of eastern European peaches, with strange writing on the label... that was sometimes a special item available for the holidays.

Once we got to the US we resumed celebrating Nochebuena on Christmas Eve with our extended family, eating all the traditional Cuban foods, with roasted pork as the main course. A shoulder roast is great, cooked in the oven, but the real traditional way of cooking pork is by roasting it whole, in a pit in the ground, wrapped in banana leaves…or aluminum foil.

One year, after my parents came to live with us, my father decided he wanted to roast a pig the traditional way. We needed to find a whole pig, specifically a young tender one. My brother in law, Daniel, generously offered to take him to a livestock auction to buy a pig. Daniel doesn’t speak Spanish, and my father spoke  broken English, but he and Daniel had often gone hunting together, and they seemed to communicate well enough to manage just fine.

Off to the auction they went. Papillo was very excited, he loved livestock and this was his first auction. A HUGE pig was brought out and Papillo--who had a very expressive face and definitely talked with his hands--made an animated comment about the size of the animal. Unfortunately, Daniel thought my father was saying how much he liked the pig, and so he bid on it! 

The more Papillo exclaimed, the more Daniel bid. I think by the time my father realized they were buying the pig, it was too late. They had to borrow a trailer to bring it home!

My father was furious—furious with himself, with Daniel, with the huge job ahead of him. But he was never one to shy away from a difficult task, so he butchered the pig (I was grateful that this took place at Daniel and Nina’s house). However, the beast was prepared for cooking in my kitchen; my whole kitchen was taken over for several days. Every counter top and surface was covered with pork meat. Some of the pork was fried, but most of it was “adobado” (marinated) with mojo for roasting.

We decided to invite the whole neighborhood to join in the feast. A huge pit was dug in a neighbor’s yard; my father got up in the middle of the night, and tended the roasting pig until the middle of the next day. We had a marvelous neighborhood feast.   That was over twenty years ago, and we no longer live in that neighborhood, but the other day I ran into one of those neighbors and he talked about “the time we had the roasted pig.” 


I consider this is the centerpiece of Cuban cooking. Every major celebration would hopefully include a roasted pig, preferably roasted in a pit in the ground. Here is how you make lechon on a smaller scale, in the oven. I didn't pay attention the many times my parents prepared lechon, but fortunately my godmother Tia China taught me how to do it, after my father passed away. Tia China is my father’s youngest sister and I love her! We think a lot alike and have had a lot of great times together throughout the years. She even went camping with us at Lake Powell, while in her seventies. 

     1 Pork shoulder or Fresh Ham 
     Salt, lots
     A whole head of garlic
     1-2 cups Mojo (buy at Latin markets, or make your own. Click here for recipe)

Wash the pork and pat it dry with paper towels. Do not remove the fat. Rub with lots of salt. Puncture with a knife all over.
Peel and mash garlic cloves, I use a mortar and pestle. Add a tablespoon of salt. Put this paste into the holes you made in the pork. Pour mojo over the whole thing. Cover and marinate in the refrigerator, at least over night.

Bake uncovered, fat side up. First 15 minutes at 500 to toast the outside, then 30 minutes at 350 degrees, after that turn the oven down to 325.  Bake ½ hour per pound, or till meat thermometer says it’s done (180 internal temp).  Puncture fat every so often with a fork. 

Eat it with all the trimmings (yuca, tostones, frijoles negros, arroz, flan, etc), but most of all with family and friends! 

Feliz Navidad!