The Roasted Pig of a Traditional Cuban Christmas – Lechon Asado
Although Cuba’s history is firmly rooted in Spanish Catholicism, Cubans celebrate Christian holidays in their own unique way. For Christmas, there is one important tradition that Cubans took to a whole new level: lechon asado, the Cuban roasted pig.
Here is what we are celebrating Christmas this year!
Cooking the Cuban Roasted Pig
The roasted pig is the Cuban Christmas centerpiece. On Christmas Eve, or Noche Buena, the slow roasted pork is cooked whole for 12 hours in a caja china, or Chinese roasting box, started first thing in the morning. One suckling pig can serve up as much as 100 pounds of citrus-marinated meat. The pig is roasted with the traditional sofrito sauce, which features garlic, onion, and cilantro, or mojo sauce, which adds sour orange and cumin.
As the pig cooks, dozens of side dishes are prepared and shared by members of the family and neighbors, who might travel from house to house visiting friends throughout the day. Sides include Cuban bread, black beans and rice, yucca, tostones, platonos maduros, polenta, and more. Cubans go so far as to eat the crunchy skin, called chicharones, or, in English, pork rinds.
The Cuban roasted pig offers more than a large meal: it’s an opportunity to celebrate an entire neighborhood.
A Neighborhood Cuban Christmas
Traditionally, it wasn’t unusual to find an entire Cuban lineage living next to one another along a single block. Grandchildren and cousins lived next door to parents, second cousins, aunts, and uncles in an arrangement that expands the concept of family beyond its typical American understanding. The family spent all year helping and watching over each other.
On the day before Noche Buena, it remains the traditional job of the family’s men to select, slaughter, and clean the pig while they bond and share stories. Although fewer men slaughter the pigs themselves today, to be involved in its selection remains an important milestone for a family’s males.
For all of its celebration, the Cuban Christmas remains an important religious holiday, persisting despite decades of Communist rule in Cuba.
The Religious Cuban Christmas
Cuba is heavily influenced by Spain, having been claimed in the late 1400s by Christopher Columbus on behalf of the Catholic Spanish monarchy. Catholic influence continued until the communist revolution in 1959, when most Catholicism was pushed underground. Many ended up fleeing or being persecuted for their religious beliefs.
Eventually, Castro lifted restrictions on Christmas in Cuba around the time the Pope visited Cuba. Still the traditions never completely recovered. Despite weakened participation in the Catholic church in Cuba today, practicing Cubans abroad maintain the day-long festive atmosphere and the reverence for Christmas.
After spending the day cooking together, eating, and celebrating the family, the Cuban Christmas is made complete with Catholic mass. The three-hour mass, starting at midnight, is aptly called “Mass of the Rooster” for extending so far into the early morning. Alternatively, family members will attend mass after gifts are opened on Christmas Day, followed with a family brunch.
The Roasted Pig as a Centerpiece of Family
The slow roast makes for an entire day’s worth of celebration and many days of prior preparation. The Cuban Christmas is about appreciating one’s entire family on the most important holy day of the year.