Noche Buena – Three Very Different Meanings

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By Susan Fogel

If you have lived in or visited Mexico regularly at the holidays, then you have heard or seen the words Noche Buena. Did you know that these two words, that literally translated, mean The Good Night, have three very different usages.

Most of us know that Noche Buena most closely means Christmas Eve. December 24th in Mexico is the culmination of the hustling, bustling holiday season. Families large and small, religious and secular gather to open presents, play games, and at midnight enjoy a sumptuous feast. There are traditional foods like bacalao, a dried salt cod, ensalada betebel (cold beet salad), and turkey. Each family add and subtract foods that please them or not. The meal can last for hours. Christmas Day is a day of rest and clean up. Here in La Paz, there will be fireworks on December 24th. And the malecon is often closed to traffic on Christmas Day. It is sweet to walk and enjoy our beautiful city. If you are lucky enough to be invited to a Noche Buena celebration, take a long siesta. Have a light snack and commit to staying up late. To be invited to a family celebration on December 24th is indeed an honor.

Take it from a gringa that knows, don’t skip that nap! Wear comfortable clothing and enjoy!

For weeks now, nurseries, grocery stores, and roadside stands have been laden with poinsettias, also known as Flor de Noche Buena, or Noche Buena for short. The poinsettia is native to Mexico and grows in various areas, including the Pacific Coast.

The religious connotation and the association with Christmas hales back to a 16th century legend about a poor, young girl name Pepita who had no gift to bring to celebrate Jesus’ birth. She said an angel told her to gather weeds from along the road and place them at the altar. From those weeds, crimson flowers with yellow centers bloomed. Franciscan friars of the 17th century used the flowers as part of their religious teachings at Christmas. They said that the golden centers and star shape symbolized the Star of Bethlehem. And the crimson flowers the blood of Christ.

Aztecs used the flowers for red dye and as an antipyretic…a substance to reduce fevers. Commonly considered toxic, the plant can be an irritant to skin and eyes. But an Ohio University study shows no problems with even extremely large doses.

Today, poinsettias come in hues that range from pink, to a creamy white, orange, speckled, and the traditional red. Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first United States minister to Mexico imported the plant to the U.S. in 1825, and it bears his name.

Third generation American poinsettia cultivator, Paul Ecke, Jr., went into overdrive to promote the family’s specially grafted full and compact plants, and until 1991 were the sole producers of the plants you see everywhere. He sent free plants to television stations to use on the air from Thanksgiving to Christmas and was a guest on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and the Bob Hope show. He was linking his plants to Christmas using the best marketing media of the time.

Ubiquitous, but beautiful, the Noche Buena is a truly Mexican symbol of Christmas.

What could be better than an icy cold brew? And what could be better than a beer that is produced once a year in late fall and disappears just about the time the first Christmas toy breaks?

A rabbi once told me that he never partook of the holiday delicacies outside of the holidays. He said that if eaten at any old time, these special treats became mundane.

And so it goes with the golden, caramel flavored, stock beer called Noche Buena. This beer is brewed by Modelo and Bohemia, each one from a different brewery. They come boxed in 12-packs, and if there are any left on the shelf in Chedraui or Soriana, grab them while you can. They will not be available for another year. For years, the only Noche Buena beer that I saw was Modelo. Last year and this year the Bohemia version is all that I can find. It is a lovely beer, smooth, and dark with a nice golden head. If you like dark beer and you want to enjoy a Mexican holiday favorite, you will not be disappointed. The alcohol content is a robust 5.3%. The pretty, dark bottle is smaller than usual, the label golden with a fiery red Noche Buena.

Heineken was recently given permission to sell Bohemia’s Noche Buena beer in the U.S. And you can bet that it ain’t gonna be cheap!

So, when your first-timer guests arrive, you can sound like an old Baja hand and explain to them the three meanings of Noche Buena.

Feliz Noche Buena!

Photos courtesy of Donneley McCann.

Susan Fogel is a retired real estate agent. She spends her days writing, creating beautiful garments, and collecting shells.

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