Ever since she was 5, Danika Ferndandez has sung at her church’s Misa de Gallo in Hayward, Calif., on Christmas Eve. Ms. Fernandez, now a music educator in New York, has flown back to her hometown to sing in the church choir every year since moving to the East Coast in 2019. For the last 25 years, she’s also sung at daily masses held at 5:30 a.m. from Dec. 16 to Christmas Eve. Now that she’s older and thinking about starting a family, she knows that gathering, listening to music and singing are all a part of the tradition that she wants to pass down — but maybe not the early morning mass.
“When you’re a kid, you’re just kind of thrust into it because your mom’s waking up early in the morning and saying, ‘We’re going to church,’” she said. “Now, I have responsibility for it. Now, I feel the importance of it.”
For Ms. Brown-Cepeda, honoring the traditions of Noche Buena is about decentralizing the white American experience, and one way to do that is by singing villancicos, or Latin American Christmas carols. Her parents made sure that she grew up feeling proud of being Afro-Indigenous, Dominican and Puerto Rican. Although she and her partner aren’t religious, they will sing Latino Christmas carols like “El Burrito Sabanero” and “Dulce Jesus Mio.” They also plan on incorporating novenas, which involves nine consecutive nights of prayer and singing villancicos. Novenas are commonly celebrated in Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela to prepare for Christmas.
Latino culture is inextricably intertwined with Catholicism, and these aspects are more about maintaining cultural ties than they about religion for Ms. Brown-Cepeda. She sees it as a privilege that her parents were in a position to be able to pass down their traditions. Through her archival work, she’s learned that others may have found it easier to assimilate into more American customs, depending on when their family migrated. She sees the holiday as a way of continuing tradition regardless of where they now live.
John Sapida, Ms. Fernandez’s partner, migrated with his family from the Philippines to New Jersey in 2002, when he was around 9 years old. His family would recreate their experience of Noche Buena in the Philippines with their new neighbors. Mr. Sapida, a manager for digital initiatives at the American Museum of Natural History, says the smells of the food have never quite been right since migrating, but the sentiment is always the same.
He remembers celebrating with many titos and titas, or aunts and uncles, who weren’t necessarily blood relatives but were close friends who had also migrated to the area. They would pool together gifts for the kids, and, after dinner, an adult would hand out the gifts from a big bag with the tenor of a game-show host. At midnight, everyone would go home to spend time with their immediate family — and maybe play with a new toy.