The Traditions Vary, but Still It’s Christmas : Holiday Celebrations Have a Decidedly Ethnic Spin Within L.A.’s Neighborhood Enclaves


In Huntington Park, a bustling carniceria stocks up on cornmeal masa for Mexican and Central American tamales, and on lechon , succulent pork that local Cuban and Puerto Rican families will roast, smothered in tangy garlic mojo sauce, come Christmas Eve.

A few miles away in South-Central, an African American mother simultaneously shops for Christmas presents and for the rich fabrics she and her daughters will use to make traditional costumes for Kwanzaa, the African harvest festival beginning Dec. 26.

Filipino Catholics in the Rampart area count down the days with an early morning Mass, followed by a breakfast of steamed puto bungbong rice cakes, while a little to the south, Koreans get ready for an American-style Christmas celebration--with Korean food substituting for turkey, that is.

In central Los Angeles, decking the halls can take on as many different interpretations as there are ethnic groups. And to each group, individual traditions are every bit as typical of Christmas as candy canes and carols, a link with family and fond memories of holidays past.



To the Latino patrons of the R&G; Meat Market in Huntington Park, it simply isn’t Christmas without tamales, or lechon , or any one of the ethnic holiday treats the store begins stocking in November.

“We have a lot of customers we see only on the holidays,” said Jorge Cruz Jr., who runs the store his Cuban immigrant parents established in 1969. “Even if they’ve become somewhat Americanized, this is what they know as Christmas.”

For the past month, the little market’s narrow aisles have been crowded with stacks of thick green banana leaves used by Central Americans as tamale wrappers, piles of naranjas agrias , the sour oranges Cubans and Puerto Ricans mix with mashed garlic and spices to baste their lechon , and cases of sparkling Spanish sidra wine, stacked almost to the ceiling.

In and around the meat counter, whole pigs-- lechones --and plump pork legs compete for space with heavy plastic bags of white, homemade masa . Each Christmas, the store goes through approximately 1,000 pounds of masa , 400 pork legs and 60 whole pigs.

“I’m second-generation, and my wife is Anglo, a gringa ,” Cruz said, smiling. “But on Christmas, we go to my parents’ house. I’ve got to have a pork leg, and yuca (cassava), and black beans and rice. It’s just not right without it.”

For Francisca Montenegro of El Sereno, Christmas is just not right without a huge Mexican feast of tamales, all 20 to 30 pounds of them lovingly prepared by her hands.

The mother of eight rises early the morning of Christmas Eve-- Noche Buena , the “good night,” to Latinos--and begins cooking the meat and grinding

the spices she will eventually mix into the masa and boil wrapped in corn leaves.

Around 5 p.m., her three married sons bring their wives and children over to join in a night of feasting, exchanging gifts and enjoying one another’s company.

“You get tired because you work hard, but you feel satisfied that your children are all there, and that we’re all at home together,” Montenegro said warmly. “You want to see them full and happy.”

In her South-Central apartment, Melva Parhams is busy preparing for two holiday family gatherings--one on Christmas Day and another on New Year’s Eve, the second-to-last and most important day of Kwanzaa, which was introduced to the United States in 1966 and is celebrated worldwide.


Fuzzy red stockings, gold tinsel and a handmade “Happy Birthday Jesus” sign share Parhams’ living room with a fruit basket representing the first fruits of the African harvest and a kinara , which holds seven mshumma saba candles representing the seven principles of Kwanzaa: unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith.


Swaths of velvet and gold lame lying on the sofa will soon be stitched into African robes, which she and her two daughters will wear for holiday festivities.

“Some people don’t like to mix the two holidays, but we celebrate both,” she said. “Kwanzaa gives African Americans something of their own to celebrate, but it doesn’t stop Christmas. You can incorporate both holidays, back to back.”

Kwanzaa tradition also involves gift-giving, as two separate piles of gifts on Parhams’ floor attest.

“On Christmas, I have to tell the kids, ‘No, no, you can’t open those presents over there yet,’ ” she said, motioning to a little pile of wrapped boxes tucked away in a corner. “Those are for Kwanzaa.”

For Joel Rambo of Baldwin Hills, Kwanzaa preparations have been going on since August, when orders for his red, black and green flags representing Pan-African unity started pouring in. Rambo began sewing the flags--which were adopted for Kwanzaa in the late 1960s--when he was unable to find one for himself five years ago.


A full-time video recording engineer, Rambo now finds his part-time flag-making business booming during the latter part of the year, with as many as 500 flag orders, some of which he now has to farm out to local tailors, he said.


In the Rampart district, St. Columban Church--the only Filipino Catholic church in the city--draws local Filipino Americans in before dawn to simban gabi , a daily Christmas Mass held at 4 a.m. between Dec. 16 and Jan. 6.

“After the service, we eat breakfast in the churchyard,” said Gabriel Espiritu, who attends the services regularly. “We have puto bungbong , and salabat , which is a drink made of ginger. Then we all go home and go to work.”

Colonized for centuries by the Spanish and largely Catholic as a result, Filipinos are the only Asian American ethnic group for whom Christmas is not an adopted holiday. But many of the Asians who have embraced it--including Korean Americans--participate wholeheartedly in American-style Christmas traditions, whether they are Christian or not.

In Korea, although only about a third of the population is Christian, Christmas has been a national holiday for several years, said Chandler Im of the Korean Youth and Cultural Center. Even Buddhists go Christmas shopping, and the holiday is seen as a fun occasion on which to see family and friends and exchange gifts.

Taking a break in the middle of a shopping trip to Koreatown Plaza, Pillhe Oh and Geun Soon Lim were engaged in an all-American shopping mall scene. The two women sat watching their small children under a two-story Christmas tree, occasionally chasing after them as the youngsters scampered off to get a closer look at the giant gift boxes and candy canes nearby.

“On Christmas, the whole family will be together,” said Oh, holding her daughter, Carol, who turns 1 year old on Christmas Day and will probably get new clothes as a gift from mom.

“We’ll stay at home and have Christmas dinner together,” Oh said.

“But we’ll eat Korean food.”