New Year’s Eve in Cuba

Photos: Arien Chang Castan

A year is an example of a cyclical process; it is analagous to processes like a day, human life, the development of a culture… all with rising and descending stages. The year’s end is always a time of reckoning and taking stock; it is the right time to go over successes and failures, and comparing what was achieved with what wasn’t. At midnight on the night of December 31, one stage ends and another begins, starting with goals that sometimes are left over from before, like those invariably unkept promises to quit smoking, visit our elderly ill aunty, and lose weight.

Christmas and New Year’s Eve parties begin with quite a bit of anticipation. From early December, all the big stores remind us — with allegorical decorations and very slight price reductions — that the holidays are coming, and setting up a tree with lights and colored balls is a party for the whole family. As the merriment increases, the pace of work declines. Illness takes a breather; the ailment is still there, but the doctor’s visit is postponed until January. Those who very occasionally drink alcoholic beverages decide that “one day won’t hurt” and tip their glasses — sometimes more than one — and even the least friendly neighbors have to be restrained from smothering you in hugs. The holiday cards come in, all saying more or less the same thing: “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.”

They are festivities for the birth of the Baby Jesus. But in Cuba, like in other countries, the celebration has become secularized and the holidays are a great motivation for get-togethers and reunions of family and friends. Catholic churches fill with parishioners — not always the devout — for midnight mass, which was always held at 11 p.m. on the 24th, but now can be held at 9 or any other hour, according to the agenda of the priest who is available.

Dinner on the 24th, Christmas Eve, is the center of the celebration. On that day — or on the 31st — it is important for many to wear something new; it could be a jacket or a new piece of underwear. Cuban families don’t have a set hour for dining on that day, but the meal is chared as a family, everyone sits down together, and everyone has to be at the table to begin enjoying the frijoles negros dormidos (black beans cooked and allowed to stand until the following day), fluffy white rice, yucca in garlic sauce, and roast pork or turkey — stuffed or unstuffed — which, together with homemade desserts like Christmas buñuelos (fritters) and a wide range of Spanish turrones (nougat candy) are the dishes — along with bananas in black sauce — that make up the holiday feast, washed down — in this country without a wine culture or tradition — generally with ice-cold beer. Neither lamb nor seafood is common at Christmas Eve dinners in Cuba, even though they are elsewhere.

One of our great writers on local customs and manners used to say that for average Cubans, what’s on the table for Christmas Eve dinner is less important than what’s left over, so that you can say that there was so much food that night that you didn’t have to cook the next day. Actually, Cuban women tend not to work in the kitchen on Christmas Day, which is the day for “montería,” or eating the pork left over from the night before. The goal is for the 25th to be as relaxed as possible, ideal for visiting and finishing off the bottle that was started last night or to recover from the hustle and bustle of the previous days. While holding a big dinner on the night of the 31st has gained ground in recent years, most people prefer a light meal at home and then to go out on the town to celebrate, welcoming in the new year and beginning a new cycle with lunch on January 1.

This metabolic feat usually leaves one’s digestive system out of whack, both for those who eat more and those who eat less. One special day remain: it is the day of the arrival of the Three Kings, the three wise men who appear in the Psalms and who, like an omniscient representation of all of humanity, honored the baby of Bethlehem. Three Kings’ Day brings the festivities to a close. The now darkened Christmas tree stays standing in its corner — for who knows how many more days — collecting dust. It was set up with the hopes of days to come, and now taking it down becomes a torture that is postponed over and over until somebody in the household gets his or her courage up. The colored balls are put away carefully, ready to be used again at the end of the year .

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