Seattle's Child

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Noche Buena gifting feasting

This family's fNoche Buena feast mixes favorite dishes from midwestern USA and the Philippines.

Noche Buena: A night of discernment and connection

A mom teaches her children the balance of gratitude and generosity

In Sophia Agtarap’s family, Christmas is a working holiday. Her sister is a United Methodist pastor. Her father is a retired pastor. Her other sister? Married to a pastor. 

“Being part of a pastor’s family, you somehow also become a part of service and ministry,” she says.

A midnight feast

Every year, they could count on at least one moment of family time: Noche Buena, the traditional Filipino midnight feast held on Christmas Eve.

During childhood years in Iowa without extended family nearby, Noche Buena consisted of an intimate meal with her parents and sisters. Their dining table held a mix of midwestern and Filipino staples: dinner rolls and rice, ham and kare-kare, a beef and peanut stew. With her father working as a pastor while also earning his doctorate, gifts were modest. Yet there was rarely a sense of not enough. 

For her “big” present one year, she received a white button-up shirt, with each button in the shape of a tiny clock. “I thought that was like, the COOLEST thing,” she laughs. 

Balancing gratitude and generosity

Now with children of her own, Agtarap, who lives in Tacoma, approaches gift-giving as a balancing act, keeping generosity and gratitude in mind as guiding principles.

With her five-year-old son Kai, she says, “We want him to develop a sense of gratitude, and not expect that when we go to a store that he’s going to walk out with a toy.”

What that looks like is having intentional conversations with him about his wants and needs. She might ask, “What is it that you like about this? Do you have something that’s already like this at home? It’s trying to instill and build some discernment in him.”

‘Someone thought of you’

At the same time, “We want you to also experience what generosity feels like,” she continues. “That someone thought of you, and bought this thing for you, and hoped you would enjoy it!”

But, she emphasizes, things are rarely perfect. There are still moments when a gift from grandma could have been handled with more gratitude. 

“Like, ‘Lola just gave that to you and now it’s on the floor,’” Agtarap says. “It’s very messy. We have to practice!”

In her professional life, Agtarap directs equity, diversity, and inclusion initiatives in higher education. A member of a student services team once asked her about how to encourage a sense of belonging among students. 

“There’s a difference between ‘You’re invited to this thing’ and ‘I created this thing with you in mind.’” replied Agtarap. 

Deepened relationships through gifting

So it is with gifts. As a giver, knowing someone well enough to choose the perfect gift is an act that brings Agtarap great joy. 

“It’s less about the actual thing,” she notes, “but about the relationship that is deepened when we exchange something meaningful.”

Years ago in Nashville, when she was still dating her now-husband, they put together a special present for his teenager Trinity, now Agtarap’s stepdaughter, who was a huge fan of the British singer-songwriter Sam Smith. 

As Trinity opened the gift, her eyes welled up with tears. Not only had they given her a vinyl record of Smith’s, but they had tucked inside a ticket to see him perform at the Grand Ole Opry. 

A new meaning of connection through adversity

Using gifts as a channel for connection gained new meaning during the pandemic, when her family was unable to gather for Noche Buena. 

Instead, each household cooked something special, then packaged it into three separate containers. Agtarap made lumpia, Filipino-style spring rolls. Her mother made pancit, a celebratory noodle dish. Then one of her sisters, who owned a car with four-wheel drive, braved icy streets to deliver gifts of food between Tacoma and Sumner, making sure that every member of the family was able to partake of the Christmas Eve feast.

More at Seattle’s Child:

On holiday giving

Settle in for holiday movie nights!

About the Author

Charlene Dy

Charlene Dy writes about kids and the people who love them. A Manila-born Chinese-Canadian, she now lives with her family on the Eastside, where she is definitely that mom chatting you up on the playground.