In my house in Mantilla, Christmas Eve was always a feast of family and friends. It was the most anticipated date and for days ahead of time we started the preparations, buying nougat, marzipan, figs, walnuts, hazelnuts, chestnuts, wine, cider and cheese. We looked for black beans and soft yucca, and well-threshed rice. The pig was sacrificed the day before and marinated and then taken to the oven at the bakery in the early hours. The same day we bought lettuce, radishes and tomatoes for the salad, to ensure they were fresh. The whole day was given over to preparing for the big dinner at night.
In the cement patio at the back of the house, we set up a big table made of boards on saw-horses. All around were benches, also wood. The table was covered with huge white tablecloths. My uncles made sure there was a barrel of beer, soft drinks, apples, pears and grapes, and an occasional bottle of wine. The dessert pancakes and coconut and guayaba candies were made by Joaquina, our neighbor, a black cook who was part of the family.
The children spent the day playing and helping out with whatever they told us to do. We also visited the homes of friends who were preparing their dinners. My neighborhood was modest, but the majority of the houses celebrated Christmas Eve with more or less comfort. The joy was contagious and all the shops were decorated, and in the houses were lit trees and manger scenes. It was a day of happiness. And music accompanied us the whole day.
At nine at night the dinner started. The whole family participated, along with friends we invited and those who dropped in to surprise us. We made enough food and always had room and a plate for whoever came. Rice with black beans, yucca with a mojo sauce of oil and garlic, pork roast and salad were universal. There was wine and beer for the grown-ups and soft drinks for the kids. By dessert we were drinking cider. The dinner lasted until eleven, when we went to the Rooster’s Mass* at the church facing Route 4. When we got home we continued the party into the wee hours of the morning.
Despite everything that has happened in these years, and even though we lack almost everything, we always try to celebrate Christmas Eve. Our family is dispersed through mass exodus, and the practice is officially frowned upon, but we gather those who are left, along with our friends, and around the lit tree and the crèche we share this unique dinner on the best of all nights. We can not let something as important as our national identity be taken from us.
*Translator’s note: In Latin American countries the midnight mass on Christmas Eve is called the Rooster’s Mass because the belief that the only time the rooster crowed at midnight was the night Jesus was born.