December is a special month in Cuba as throughout the Western world. Early in the month, people begin to get ready for the holidays. Homes, shops, hotels, restaurants and other public or private entities are decorated with lights and Christmas trees that survive at least until January 6, when the Three Wise Men of the East come riding on camelback bringing gifts for the children who have behaved well throughout the year.
The gift-bearing Three Wise Men is a tradition in Spanish Catholicism that is deeply-rooted in Cuba, much more than the super-hyped Santa Claus. Despite the cultural influence of the United States upon the island—particularly strong during the first half of the 20th century and which has remained to this day through music, movies and TV, as well as Xmas ornaments sold around this time of year—the 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 newborn Christ child in the manger in Bethlehem, a scene that is repeated in every Catholic church in the world around this time of the year. In recent times, however, old jolly St. Nick is increasingly growing in popularity among many Cuban children who receive gifts both on Christmas and on Epiphany to their benefit but at the expense of their parents, who pay the price of this cultural amalgamation that characterizes Cuba.
Prior to 1959 and in the early years of the Revolution, some households followed the custom of cleaning the floor of their homes with a special kind of green-colored sawdust so that the Magi would find everything spic-and-span, and set out food and water for the camels. The children followed the custom, just like nowadays, of writing letters specifying their requests and thanking the Wise Men for what they would receive. For most kids, this belief would last throughout their infancy until the rumor that “the Magi are mom and dad” would start to spread. The older kids in the know would then become their parents’ accomplices in hiding this fact from the small ones.
With the radicalization of the Revolution, Cuba officially became an atheist nation in 1962, although the Christmas holiday continued to be celebrated until 1969. The Magi slowly began to be consigned to oblivion as well as the festivities that surrounded the Nativity of Jesus Christ. There was no place for Christmas trees, ornaments or lights. Moreover, Catholic Churches were practically deserted on Christmas Eve during the celebration of Midnight Mass.
Although “Nochebuena” was dropped from the Cuban calendar of holidays in 1969, many families continued to come together 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 could be found at markets. Dinner would be topped off with classical desserts such as buñuelos, a kind of cassava fritter shaped into the form of a number eight and served with anise syrup. In the early 1980s, apples, mostly from Bulgaria and the Soviet Union, could be bought at subsidized prices. The disintegration of the Socialist Bloc brought about an extremely harsh period for the nation and its people during the 90s. Foodstuffs were severely reduced and this, of course, was reflected on the Christmas dinner.
The visit of Pope John Paul II was a landmark in the religious openness that was already taking place on the island. In 1997, the government declared Christmas a holiday in honor of the Pope’s upcoming visit in 1998. The following year, December 25 was officially declared as a national holiday. Today, practically everybody in Cuba, whether Christians, atheists, Catholics or believers of Afro-Cuban religions, celebrate Christmas Eve and New Year as a way for reconnecting with family and friends in a usually intimate climate.
In the late 19th century, a number of cultural and recreational associations were created. These “Sociedades” were divided according to the color of the skin. On December 31, these centers would organize balls and dinners allowing the attendance of children on that sole occasion. On that day, and only on that day¸ the Sociedades admitted people of different races, and whites, blacks and mulattos could be seen dancing and reveling together as equals.
Many years later, this same spirit of equality and sharing inspired collective dinners in different urban communities, in which food was provided by the neighbors who together welcomed the New Year, congratulating and wishing each other the best in the coming year, and eating 12 grapes as a symbol of each month. In the early years of the Revolution, collective dinners were organized on New Year’s Eve, the most famous being the Giant Dinners at the Plaza de la Revolución.
Traditions remain but the way they are celebrated change with the passage of time. Today, many people prefer to celebrate New Year’s Eve at a restaurant or a nightclub in which special dinners are prepared and enjoyed along with a show. Most Cubans, however, continue to prefer to celebrate the New Year at home with pretty much the same dinner as for Christmas, except that chicken or turkey may substitute the omnipresent pork. Diehard Cubans, though, can’t conceive this day without a slice—or two or three—of their favorite meat. Beer, red wine and rum are the favorite drinks, while a sparkling wine is reserved for the toasts at midnight. If there isn’t a party going, then families will sit down in front of the TV to see the special shows, which are mostly musical or humorous. At 12, the official ceremony with the 12-gun salute is broadcast live from the Cabaña Fortress.
Many Cubans follow the custom of throwing a bucketful of water out into the street at midnight as a kind of exorcism, in which the bad things from the year gone by are expelled letting in the good things that the New Year may bring. Another custom that has become increasingly popular is walking around the block with a suitcase waving goodbye to their neighbors, in the hope that this farce will actually come true and ensure them a trip abroad.
On January 1, the streets are deserted and silent. This day is also the Anniversary of the Triumph of the Revolution. Almost everyone rests on this day after all the partying the day before, but it is not unusual to hold a party that night because January 2 is also a holiday.
If you happen to be visiting Cuba around the Christmas holidays, try to spend Nochebuena, or New Year’s Eve, with a Cuban family. There you will become acquainted with the warmth and hospitality of the inhabitants of the largest island in the Caribbean.