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It feels like spring and yet it is winter in the Cuban countryside, which grows more beautiful bathed in the colors of the sunset. No one talks about Santa, and there are no evergreens covered with snow. But Christmas in the campo (countryside) is as close as Cuba gets to a traditional Christmas. The morning of December 24 sees the pig marinated in sour orange juice and covered with fresh guava leaves. The roast begins early in the morning, spreading an aroma that pervades every corner of the backyard where the pig is cooked in an open fire over charcoal or wood. Smells of rice, black beans, tamales, fried plantains, cassava with criollo sauce made from crushed garlic and lemon juice emanate from the kitchen. Vegetables are plentiful here and large salads of tomato, lettuce, cucumber and radishes are prepared. The children run around the large table waiting for the rice custard, bread pudding, peanut nougat, grated coconut and guava shells cooked in syrup. The sound of repeated toasts to health—‘Salud’—and good fortune punctuate the day. And don’t forget the consumption of “saoco,” (coconut milk and rum).
In the city, the celebration is more urban. The menu includes chicken, turkey or pork cooked in an oven. Traditional desserts go hand in hand with almond nougats imported from Spain, and the saoco is replaced with red and sparkling wines. Music is omnipresent and the toasts of “Felicidades” ring out. Whether in the city or the countryside, Christmas for Cubans remains an intimate affair, for family celebrations and reunions.
As New Year’s Eve approaches, the ambience changes and the scene is set for another feast: a more social party with more friends. A party for everyone, from great grandparents to the youngest child. Grandma may talk about the famous almond nougats that arrived at Havana’s port straight from the city of Alicante, but she’ll also get up and dance. The kids stay up and maybe dance too. I still remember my grandfather telling me a condensed version of his life story every New Year’s Eve. These are the memories that he bestows on me and I in turn look to instill in my children.
At midnight, a 12-gun salute is fired from the Cabaña Fortress greeting the New Year. The streets are suddenly filled with water but it isn’t raining—the people are throwing buckets of water out onto the street from balconies, rooftops, porches and doorways to get rid of all the bad and let the good come in. Others, who hope to travel, walk around the block carrying suitcases. The twelve grapes symbolizing the twelve months are eaten and a toast to health and prosperity is made with sparkling wine. Another year has passed. Viva Cuba. Viva la familia. November 2012