“Esta noche es Noche Buena,
vamos al monte hermanito.
A buscar un arbolito
porque la noche es serena.”

That’s the first Christmas song I ever learned. My mother sung me to sleep with it longer ago than either one of us care to admit.

“Tonight is Christmas Eve,
let’s go to the woods little brother.
To go find a little tree
because the night is serene.”

There is an unbroken thread running through my life, stretched out in a thin line running back to the very beginning of my consciousness that reminds me of who I am and what I believe in. It anchors my future by reminding me of the past with the strength of family and tradition.

I have two brothers, one born there as I was, and one born here. They fell asleep to that song as well. I have been thinking about that a lot lately.

In the country where I was born, La Noche Buena is the most significant of our cultural traditions. It is a night for family and a celebration to life; a night when we immerse ourselves in the waters of tradition in a baptism of love and togetherness, and the memories of a land existing only in the hearts of those who left, come alive and keep that tradition from fading even today.

Memories of a house on the side of a hill with old, wooden walls, grandparents and uncles and aunts and cousins and nieces and nephews…all gathered together under one roof, creating the expected chaos a gathering of that proportion brings about. There were a lot of us then, as I seem to recall, in those Noche Buenas of my boyhood days.

The women preparing the side dishes, the aroma of black beans and rice and garlic filled the air in the house, mingling with the laughter and the happy confusion of several loud conversations being carried simultaneously. There was yucca with tangy “mojo criollo”, fried plantains and sweet, ripe avocados sprinkled with olive oil. Most of all there was love.

We kids seemed to do nothing but get underfoot as we flew through the old house, engaged in a million make-believe games consisting mostly of running around making lots and lots of noise. Most of our games interrupted by a collective shout of “you kids go outside and play!” coming from the general area of the kitchen. We fled to the backyard and the men of the family.

They sat around an open pit where the traditional main course, a well-dressed and better seasoned young hog, sizzled over carefully watched glowing-red embers. The smell of the roasting meat hung in the air and was joined there by the aroma of fine cigars, hand-rolled from good Pinar Del Rio leaves. Loud, good-natured discussions of every theme imaginable carried the conversation, speckled with laughter and old jokes.

Christmas 1967 was the last one celebrated on the Island by my immediate family, there where few of us left there by then. There was no pig roasting over an open pit, no grandparents, few uncles and aunts, fewer kids. Hushed concern permeated our traditionally boisterous celebration as the end was in sight and our departure imminent. It was the last time I would spend Noche Buena in the old house on the side of a hill. The last time I would run my hands over the old wooden walls, the last time I would fly recklessly between the old orange trees in the backyard into my grandfather’s arms. It was to be our farewell to the country which gave us our identity, our good-bye to roots older than the oldest among us.

This year we will gather once again, as we always have, in our celebration of life and love. We will rejoice in the gifts showered on us by the Creator. We will renew the strength of the family and pay homage to all the members departed both here and there.

There will be much activity the kitchen as old, familiar smells and sounds will fill the house. There will be children, my children, playing games older than time itself with friends and cousins, being told to “run outside and play” from somewhere within that kitchen, a kitchen filled with grandmothers and aunts and mothers happily preparing the traditional fares. They will fly recklessly, happy and carefree, between citrus trees and jump into the open arms of grandfathers and fathers sitting beside an open pit, watching over the main course while smoking good cigars rolled from fine American leaves. There will be love and continuity.

And while we will miss those who have gone on before us, their presence will be felt in our hearts and their voices heard in the sound palm fronds make when the wind runs through them.

On this Noche Buena, this special night, we will once again give thanks to the land that gave us shelter from the storm of oppression and to the good Lord that saw us safely here. We will rejoice in the dreams of freedom that drove us to these shores and pay tribute to the American dream and to the people who welcomed us with open arms.

In hour darkest hour, on that Noche Buena in 1967, we looked to America to find hope. And like so many before us we found a wondrous, magnificent, generous Nation and peoples. We forged a home on fruitful soil and have grown strong; we preserve our traditions with great care and add them to the American Tapestry like so many before us. And we stand willing and able to fight for this, our home, for the Constitution and the everlasting ideals set forth by the Founding Fathers. We have indeed been blessed and we have much to be thankful for.

Last night, I looked at my children, and a tinge of sadness crossed my heart knowing that they are now too old to be sung to sleep with an old villancico, but maybe, just maybe, not too young to learn an old melody from their old man.

“Esta noche es Noche Buena,
vamos al monte hermanito.
A buscar un arbolito
porque la noche es serena.”