Christmas Eve is traditionally the most important night of the year for the Baptista family of Arlington.

As is customary in their native Bolivia, the entire family -- four generations -- gathers on La Noche Buena (the Good Night). At the stroke of midnight, hugs and kisses are given all around and, after a short prayer, the family sits down to eat.

Their holiday meal features the hearty Bolivian soup picana, a combination of beef, pork, chicken and vegetables. Doughnut-like bunuelos are served with the picana and again on Christmas morning, with honey or syrup.

Christmas Eve celebrations are an important custom in Latin America and one that many families maintain when they move to the United States.

"It's a time that brings happiness to everyone," said Alfredo Baptista, speaking in his native Spanish. "People get caught up in the spirit of the season and forget their problem at work and at home."

Baptista, who owns a repair business, came to the United States eight years ago seeking better employment opportunities. Two of his brothers live in this area; two sisters remain in Bolivia.

His wife Rina said she feels fortunate because her entire family -- including her parents and maternal grandmother -- is in the Washington area. "And with my 10 brothers and sisters, we make quite a party," she said in Spanish.

The Baptistas' three children attend Arlington public schools, where the percentage of Spanish-speaking students has more than doubled since 1980, to 18.4 percent, according to school officials. Arlington also has the metropolitan region's largest percentage of people of Spanish origin, 5.8 percent, according to 1980 census data.

The two older Baptista children -- Jessica, 14, and Heidi, 12 -- initially received help with English in the school system's English for Speakers of Other Languages program and have developed an interest in languages. Heidi, who is in seventh grade at Kenmore Intermediate School, is studying French; Jessica, a freshman at Yorktown High School, is improving her Spanish.

Nine-year-old Jesus, a fourth grader at Ashlawn Elementary, shares his family's enthusiasm for soccer, Bolivia's national sport, and plays on two teams. His sisters also play, encouraged by their father, a member of the Bolivian national team for 12 years.

Of the children, only Jessica, who came to the United States when she was 8, has a clear memory of Christmas in Bolivia, where Santa Claus is known as Papa Noel. Jessica also recalls the time Papa Noel brought a special gift, a Bolivian custom:

"I remember putting my shoes under the tree before I went to sleep, and the next morning I was so excited to find new shoes in their place."

Jessica's parents and grandparents have many memories of the rich, festive holiday season in Bolivia.

Her grandfather, Roberto Calvo, said that when he was a teen-ager he would get together with his musician friends at Christmastime. "Every November we would begin to practice the villancicos {carols} so that at Christmas we could go down to the nativity scene in the park to play and sing for the passers-by," he said in Spanish.

Rina Baptista remembers caroling at houses with elaborate nativity scenes. Hot chocolate and sweets were offered to the singers.

In Alfredo Baptista's home town of Potosi, people and animals took part in nativity scenes set up in the parks. Prizes were awarded for the best music and manger displays.

In Bolivia, gift-giving is limited to parents giving to children. When the Baptistas and their relatives gather tonight for their traditional Christmas Eve dinner, there will be an American-style exchange of gifts. But one custom has not changed: Along with their toys, Jessica, Heidi and Jesus will receive new shoes from Papa Noel.