Noche Buena during the pandemic will be “un poco diferente”

As COVID-19 makes its way to the new year, many Hispanics in South Florida are being forced to re-evaluate if and how they will celebrate Noche Buena.

The highly anticipated event takes place on December 24. On this day people gather with friends and family to eat, dance and party on the way to Christmas day.

Nance Frank, 71, lives in Key West and is the president of the Old Island Restoration Foundation, a nonprofit organization whose goal has been to preserve and restore the historic buildings of Key West — as well as its culture and history. Frank, who was born and raised in the Keys, said she was exposed to the holiday by neighbors.

“Key West was predominantly Cuban,” she said. “So, all of my neighbors were Cuban, and we celebrated all of the traditional holidays of Cubans including Noche Buena. My family is Jewish, we did Hannukah and Noche Buena.”

The feast features many different foods that vary between cultures. The common denominator is roasted pork, which is a tradition and a “must” according to Adalgisa Rodriguez, 53, a resident of Cutler Bay who celebrates the holiday as a way to reunite with family.

Frank agreed.

“Noche Buena is about roasting big whole pigs,” said the Key West native. “We play Dominos, we sing Christmas carols, we do all the sorts of things that most people in the United States do on Christmas day. We eat.”

Last year the foundation held a Noche Buena feast with about 150 people in attendance. This year the guest list will be cut in half to implement social distancing guidelines. There will be a buffet-style dinner, but guests will not be allowed to help themselves. A server will be responsible for distributing the food to avoid the use of shared serving utensils. All guests will be required to wear face masks.

Due to rising coronavirus cases, 43-year-old Milagros Reyes is uncertain if she will host her annual Noche Buena celebration this year. Reyes, who currently lives in Cutler Bay, is a marketing manager for Constellation Brands, an alcohol beverage company.

“I haven’t even thought about if we will or will not,” said Reyes. “I’m leaning more on the not… due to certain circumstances with COVID this is where we have to be right now.”

Reyes, daughter of Puerto Rican parents, said that she and her husband come from large families, so their celebration usually consists of 30 to 35 people… but not this year.

“If I do something it will probably be me, my husband and the kids, that’s it,” she said.

Reyes said that she hopes that those who choose to hold a gathering in spite of the pandemic stay within regulations.

For her part, Rodriguez said that she will not let the coronavirus ruin her celebration this year. Instead, she will have dinner with simply her two sons. But small gatherings are far from what the Dominican mother is used to. She said that in Florida alone she has about 60 relatives and that having to be apart from them is “a little bit hard.”

“At times we can’t see each other that often,” she said.

Rodriguez believes that Noche Buena is about celebrating the birth of Jesus and spending time with loved ones.

“It means a time where you can enjoy your family to the fullest because sometimes because of work or other matters we can’t get together as we would like,” she said. “That means a lot because I love my family. I love being with my family.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the size of a gathering should be dependent on the ability of all guests to maintain a 6-foot distance between one another but It is suggested that people celebrate at home with the people they live with to minimize the chances of spreading or contracting COVID-19.

“My pulmonologist who’s on the front line of course said it’s not what you do, it’s how you do it,” said Frank. “So, you do it smaller, you do it cleaner.”

Jamilka Gibson is a senior at Florida International University who is pursuing her bachelor’s degree in Broadcast Media. Gibson is a Panamanian-American who aspires to one day become a reporter/anchor in Miami, FL.