Hector Becerra, Christmas eve 1972

In a common tradition for many Latino families, Hector Becerra, shown in 1972 as a 6-month-old infant, and his family celebrated Christmas a day early. (Becerra family)

Santa Claus never came to our home in Boyle Heights. Not even in a half-baked disguise.

But if he had shown up on Christmas Day, I probably would have wondered why, because Christmas Eve was the day our family got together — our Super Bowl of holidays.

We hung out and ate tamales my mother had spent hours making. Then all the anticipation of opening our presents came to a head. One of the adults would act as the emcee as gifts were passed out. Wrapping paper flew everywhere, like the flesh off a capybara that had fallen in a piranha-infested river.


FOR THE RECORD:
Christmas traditions: The headline on the online version of this article has been changed. The previous headline -- "At Christmas time, Latino families break from American traditions" -- erred in implying that Latinos and their traditions are not American.

By Christmas morning, the celebrating was over. It felt like any other day. We'd wake up, eat leftover tamales — usually the all-dough ones because the meat ones had been devoured — drink coffee and then….

Actually, I don't know what came after that. To me, Christmas Day has never been all that memorable.

A week ago I finally asked my parents, who had emigrated almost 50 years ago from the Mexican state of Jalisco, why we celebrated on the 24th. My dad went on at some length about how we were following tradition. My mom just said it was because when we were little, we couldn't wait until Christmas to open our presents.

Despite those differing explanations, what I do know is that getting a jump on the holiday is not at all uncommon.

Beatriz Tapia, a 43-year-old teacher at East L.A. Community College, recalled how her grandfather would dress up as Santa on Christmas Eve, say "Jo, Jo, Jo" (that's the Mexican spelling) and pass out the presents.

Celebrating on the 24th was also a matter of practicality for Guillermo Arreola. Tapia's late grandfather, who had moved to the United States from Tijuana, was a waiter at the exclusive Jonathan Club. He had to work on Christmas Day.

As Tapia remembers it, "Christmas Day wasn't Christmassy at all." After the excitement of the night before, she said, "we were bored. There was nothing to do."

To Jesus Perez of Pomona, a 26-year-old mental health agency worker, "Christmas Eve was essentially our Christmas," with live bands entertaining the family late into the night.

"There's a little bit of sorrow on Christmas," Perez said. "It feels like we ran out of Christmas already, and the day just started."

There are lots of reasons why families — especially those with roots in Latin America — celebrate Christmas the day before.

In Mexico, for instance, the focus is on the noche buena, or good night, which culminates in midnight Mass. Moreover, Santa Claus, Christmas trees and wrapped presents are not traditional parts of Latino culture. Parents instead often ask what their children want el nino dios — the baby Jesus — to bring them.

Yesenia Altamirano, 22, a college student at Cal State Fullerton, said that for her Anaheim family, Christmas Eve is when carols are played on the radio, "the ugly Christmas sweaters come out" and kids are pitted against each other in dance-offs to see who gets to open their presents first.

"On Christmas, it was like a … hangover," Yesenia said. "On Christmas it feels like Christmas [has] already passed."

For Karen Quintana, a 24-year-old Arizona schoolteacher, the making of desserts and tamales would begin early on the 24th. Her family would attend an evening Mass, and at some point her stepfather — who is of Italian American descent — would sneak out and put the presents under the tree to be opened that night.

That was just the way her family had celebrated during her early childhood in the Mexican state of Sinaloa. Then on Christmas morning, Quintana said, there was menudo for breakfast and the children would play with their toys.

"There is, for some reason, more excitement in waiting and opening your gifts at midnight than doing it in the morning," said Aleena Roeschley, 24, who comes from a little town near Nogales, Ariz. "It's also nice to wake up and spend some more time with the family … without the hustle and bustle."

Some of the happiest and most vivid memories from my childhood are of Christmas Eve. My family wasn't well off, but my dad always found a way to get us all more than our share of gifts.

Very often they were exactly what we wanted.

To see our family photos over the years, you would think we were celebrating a standard American Christmas — tamales and all — on Christmas Day.

As usual, I'm really looking forward to Christmas Eve. I just hope mom adjusts her meat to all-dough tamale ratio.

Maybe I'll ask Santa.

hector.becerra@latimes.com