If you're bilingual and bicultural, you may be saying "Wait a minute, aren't Christmas Eve and Nochebuena the same thing?" The answer is yes… and no. It's the same holiday but chances are if you call it Christmas Eve instead of Nochebuena (or vice versa), you celebrate it in a very distinct way that is almost unrecognizable from its English-language or Spanish-language counterpart. What do I mean? Allow me to demonstrate.
You probably know the great American poem that goes, " ‘Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse." In other words, Christmas Eve is a quiet affair.
Nochebuena, on the other hand, is the complete opposite.
The actual activities for Christmas Eve might include a candlelit church service, reading the Bible or Christmas stories by the fireplace to children while they drink hot cocoa, and then ushering them off to bed early so that Santa Claus won't skip the house while delivering presents.
For those that celebrate Nochebuena, a "misa de gallo" (midnight Mass) is just the beginning of a very long night of loud music, singing, dancing, piñata smashing, gift exchanging, feasting, and for some families, even setting off fireworks.
Did somebody mention feasting? That's right, while those who celebrate Christmas Eve may only enjoy a cup of hot chocolate and some of the cookies they set out for Santa Claus, those who celebrate Nochebuena better save their cheat meal for tonight because it's going down. If you attend a Nochebuena fiesta, be prepared to eat your fill of tamales, lechón, turkey, seafood, and various salads, accompanied by drinks such as ponche, atole, champurrado, or coquito — what's served depends on where in Latin America or Spain the family has roots.
However, Christmas Day is when the tables turn! Those who celebrated Christmas Eve instead of Nochebuena are up early, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed — or at least the children are — because they're excited to open the presents Santa has left beneath the tree.
Toys will be played with, church attended, and visits to family and friends will be made. Now is when a special meal featuring roast turkey or ham is most likely to be eaten.
...Meanwhile, those of us who celebrated Nochebuena are still recovering from a night of partying and must settle in for a long winter's nap.