Christmas is a time of giving. It’s a time when Santa Claus rides his sleigh through the snow to deliver toys and good will to all the little children around the world.
It’s sounds so sweet and innocent. But my earliest Christmas memories have nothing to do with Santa Claus and snow. You see, for the first three years of my life, Christmas was about palm trees, beaches, strange noises in the garage and eating the family pet.
I was 3 years old when my parents brought home “un lechonsito” (a little piggy) to raise in our back yard in Cuba. He was the ugliest thing you’ve ever seen, but I quickly adopted him as the family pet. During the day, he roamed the yard eating — well — everything. And at night I knew better than to go into the garage because that’s where my little friend slept after a long day of lounging in the Caribbean sun.
Little did I know that in the Cuban tradition, my pet was soon destined to be dinner. My mother still tells the story, 43 years later, of how I walked up to the table, recognized who we were having for dinner and announced: “Mami, se me quito el hambre.” (Mom, I’m suddenly not hungry anymore).
Almost one year to the day after that meal, my family and I left Cuba and moved to New York. Luckily, raising live pigs in the brownstones of Brooklyn was frowned upon. So, we had to settle for store-bought lechon (pork). And it has remained the main staple of our ‘Noche Buena’ dinner throughout the years.
As every Cuban knows, the true meaning of Christmas has little to do with good will toward your fellow man. But it has everything to do with recovering from overindulging in “the other white meat” the night before. In fact, before the meal is served, guests gather around the roasted pork and fight over who gets to eat the skin. The crunchier the better.
Frijoles negros (black beans), rice, yucca (looks like a potato but tastes like nothing) smothered with enough garlic to stop a freight train in its tracks, salad and Cuban bread round off the main course.
That’s followed by turrones (sweet candy-like stuff that goes straight to your hips) and cafe Cubano (rocket fuel in a thimble).
Noche Buena is celebrated on Dec. 24. The literal translation is Good Night or Holy night.
The tradition dictates that after dinner, we round up the family and head to midnight mass. Unfortunately, this coincides with the exact time of the pig’s revenge. Let’s just say that God hears a lot of porcelain prayers that night.
Despite the fact that my earliest memories of Christmas should have led to years of therapy, from year to year I hope and pray that the Christmases of the present can live up to the memories I carry in my heart of Christmases past. And even though the objective eye of the journalist in me pokes fun at my Cuban traditions, Christmas just wouldn’t be Christmas without them.
Food and family are the foundations of tradition. Whether your idea of a holiday meal includes real pork or vegetarian soy pork substitute, remember that food is the glue that keeps people together this time of year and helps create new traditions for future generations.
So, this holiday season, eat and let eat … just keep the family pet under the table, not on it.