December is a special month in Cuba, as it is in the rest of the Western world. People start preparing again for holiday breaks early in the month. Homes, shops, hotels, restaurants, and other public or private entities are decorated with lights and Christmas trees that will last at least until January 6, when the Three Wise Men of the East arrive on camelback with gifts for the children who have behaved well all year.
The gift-bearing Three Wise Men are indeed a firmly rooted tradition in Spanish Catholicism in Cuba, much more so than the over-hyped Santa Claus. Despite the cultural influence of the United States on the island, that was especially strong during the first half of the twentieth century and continues to this day through music, movies, and television, as well as Xmas ornaments sold around this time of year, this same white-bearded and red-suited Santa clearly loses the battle against the Three Kings of the Orient, who paid homage and brought gifts to the new born Christ child in the manger in Bethlehem.It is a scenario that can be seen in every Catholic Church around the world at this time of year. However, in recent years, old jolly St. Nick has grown in popularity among many Cuban children, who receive gifts both on Christmas and Epiphany, to their benefit but at the expense of their parents, who take the burden of Cuba’s cultural amalgamation.
Prior to 1959, and especially during the early years of the Revolution, some families had the custom of cleaning their floors with a special kind of green-colored sawdust so that the Magi would find everything spotless and set out food and water for the camels. The children followed the tradition of writing letters to the Wise Men outlining their requests and thanking them for what they would receive, just as they do today. This belief would last for most children throughout their childhood, until the rumor that “the Magi are mom and dad” began to spread. The older children who were aware of the situation would then join their parents in hiding the information from the younger children.
With the radicalization of the Revolution, Cuba became an officially atheist country in 1962, though the Christmas holiday was still witnessed until 1969. The Magi, as well as the festivities surrounding Jesus Christ’s birth, gradually faded into obscurity. Christmas trees, ornaments, and lights had no place in this room. Furthermore, during the Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, Catholic Churches were practically deserted.
Despite the fact that “Nochebuena” was removed from the Cuban calendar of holidays in 1969, many families continued to gather on Christmas Eve for the traditional meal of roast pork, rice and black beans, boiled cassava in garlic sauce, and a large salad of tomatoes, lettuce, cabbage, radishes, and whatever vegetables were available at the markets. Classic desserts like buuelos, a type of cassava fritter shaped into the shape of an eight and served with anise syrup, would round out the meal. Apples, mostly from Bulgaria and the Soviet Union, could be purchased at subsidized prices in the early 1980s. During the 1990s, the disintegration of the Socialist Bloc ushered in a period of extreme hardship for the country and its people. Food supplies were severely rationed, which, of course, had an impact on the Christmas dinner.
The visit of Pope John Paul II was a defining moment in the island’s growing religious openness. In honour of the Pope’s upcoming visit in 1998, the government declared Christmas a holiday in 1997. The following year, December 25th was declared a national holiday. Today, almost everyone in Cuba, whether Christians, atheists, Catholics, or followers of Afro-Cuban religions, celebrate Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve as a way to reconnect with family and friends in an already intimate atmosphere.
A number of cultural and recreational organizations were formed in the late 19th century. These “Sociedades” were classified based on skin colour. These institutions would arrange balloons as well as dinner parties on December 31st, allowing children to attend for that one night only. The Sociedades conceded people of different races that day, and whites, blacks, and mulattos could be seen dancing and rejoicing together as equals.Many years later, this same spirit of equality and sharing inspired collective dinners in various urban communities, where food was provided by neighbours who welcomed the New Year together, congratulating and wishing each other the best in the coming year, and eating 12 grapes as a symbol of each month. Collective dinners were organized on New Year’s Eve in the early years of the Revolution, the most famous of which were the Giant Dinners at Plaza de la Revolución.
Traditions endure, but the manner in which they are observed evolves over time. Many people nowadays prefer to spend New Year’s Eve at a restaurant or a nightclub, where special dinners are prepared and enjoyed alongside a show. Most Cubans, however, continue to prefer to celebrate the New Year at home, with essentially the same dinner as for Christmas, with the exception that chicken or turkey may replace the omnipresent pork. Cubans, on the other hand, can’t imagine this day without a slice — or two or three — of their favourite meat. Beer, red wine, and rum are popular beverages, with a sparkling wine reserved for midnight toasts. If there isn’t a party going on, families will gather in front of the television to watch the special shows, which are usually musical or humorous.The official ceremony complete, with the 12-gun salute, begins at 12 p.m. and is broadcast live from the Cabaa Fortress.
Many Cubans practice an exorcism by throwing a bucket of water out into the street at midnight, expelling the bad things from the previous year and allowing in the good things that the New Year may bring. Another increasingly popular custom is walking around the block with a suitcase, waving goodbye to their neighbours in the hope that this farce will come true and secure them a trip abroad.
The streets are deserted and silent on January 1st. The Revolutionary War’s Triumph is also commemorated on this day. After all of the partying the night before, almost everyone rests on this day, but because January 2 is also a holiday, it is not unusual to throw a party that night. Try to spend Nochebuena, or New Year’s Eve, with a Cuban family if you happen to be in Cuba during the holiday season. You will experience the warmth and hospitality of the people of the Caribbean’s largest island.
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