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by Victoria Alcalá
Every time Christmas comes around, I can’t help remembering when I was five or six years old, sitting on the floor of my house with my cousins, cracking walnuts and hazelnuts by unappealable order of my father, and the delicious smell of sour oranges, garlic and spices coming out from the kitchen every time somebody opened the oven door to check the turkey or leg of pork that was being cooked slowly, mixed with the sweet aroma of the syrup that my grandmother prepared for the “buñuelos”.1
The voices of Barbarito Diez or Elvis Presley on the record player were muffled by the hullabaloo made by uncles and aunts, who cheered by the many “mojitos” that my dad would prepare, bustled around the dinner table dressing huge bowls of salad, cutting up nougats decorated with marzipan and dried figs, placing the linen tablecloths and napkins and the china dinner service used only on special occasions, and taking out from mahogany cabinets the fine glassware that was rarely used and the silverware that had previously been polished.
So many years have passed since then. The custom of celebrating Christmas Eve practically disappeared in Cuba in the mid-1960s, only to reappear strongly in the past two or three decades. But the linen tablecloths were transformed into dresses; the silverware was sold to meet more urgent needs; many family members are no longer with us; walnuts and hazelnuts are purchased without the shell; the old record players were replaced by tape recorders and CD and DVD players; and instead of listening to Barbarito and The King, the young people now listen to a wide range of both international and Cuban music. The joy that surrounds the Christmas season has once more brightened Cuban homes, and families get together during the festivities. Believers or not, the holiday spirit ends up infecting everybody.
Christmas trees begin to appear in many homes since early December and at my house, in particular, putting up and trimming the tree takes on an almost ceremonial character. The decision of what decorations to put on the tree becomes a complex operation since my son insists on buying a new decoration each year, which increases our reserves from year to year.
The next step in a Cuban Christmas celebration involves the menu for the 24th and 25th of December and January the 1st, what friends are to be invited and purchases to be made, including new clothes and gifts for the children. Savings and remittances from relatives or friends who live abroad are spent without giving much thought to what will happen beyond the festivities. After all, as Scarlett O’Hara would say, “Tomorrow is another day.”
The more farsighted start shopping early in December for chicken, turkey or pork for the special dinners of the 24th and 31st of December. The cooking in itself is an event during the festivities and is an excellent excuse for reuniting families. The pork–or chicken or turkey–is usually marinated with crushed garlic, sour oranges, oregano and cumin the day before and roasted on the special day. This year, I plan to substitute fresh orange and pineapple juice for the sour oranges, and chicken breasts for the pork. The rest of the menu includes white rice and black beans, or “moros y cristianos,” which is rice cooked together with previously softened black beans and salt, garlic, onions, pimiento, oregano, cumin and a bay leaf; boiled cassava served with a sauce made of garlic, salt and sour orange juice; “tostones;” 2 and a large salad of tomatoes, lettuce, cabbage, radishes, etc. These meals are usually accompanied by beer or red wine. Cider or champagne is usually reserved for drinking a toast at midnight for the New Year. According to how much each family can afford, dinner is completed with classical desserts, such as buñuelos, bread pudding or custards, and imported nougat, grapes and apples. Some families accompany these special dinners with music and dancing that go on till the small hours of the morning, while for other families it is a quiet and intimate affair.
It is customary to congratulate friends, colleagues and relatives who are far away during the days prior to Christmas. The beautiful postcards that we used to receive by mail have been replaced by postcards that can be downloaded free from the Internet although some prefer to personalize their Christmas and New Year messages and create their own postcards with family pictures, or rural or urban views. Gifts are almost always for the little ones–clothes or treats on the 25th and toys on the Epiphany on January 6, which closes the cycle of festivities.
With the new times, certain rituals have changed. Midnight Mass, for instance, which was reserved for practicing Catholics, is being attended now by many people of faith, who believe in God but who do not go to church on a regular basis; you might even find non-believers in church that day. One custom that has survived throughout time is throwing a bucket of water onto the street on the 31st of December to “throw out” all the bad things accumulated during the year that is coming to an end and “clean” the way for the approaching year. Other beliefs include wearing white on that day for good luck and girls looking for husbands should light a red candle exactly at midnight. It you see anybody walking around with a suitcase that means that they hope to travel during the coming year.
The holidays however are not restricted to the 24th or the 31st. Festivities begin in mid-December in workplaces, and on the pretext of annual balance, achieved goals, etc, etc, etc, workers prepare parties with the inevitable pork and “caldosa”–which has replaced the traditional “ajiaco,” a stew that accepts any type of meat and vegetables–as well as rum and beer that help loosen up and have a good time.
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1 Buñuelos: A popular Cuban dessert made especially for Christmas, which is prepared with mashed boiled cassava to which a pinch of salt, flour and beaten whole eggs is added. The mixture is kneaded and shaped into the form of a number eight, deep fried in hot vegetable oil and served with anise or cinnamon-scented syrup
2 Tostones: Green plantains cut into pieces and fried over medium heat. The fried plantains are drained and smashed flat and fried again quickly over very hot heat. They are served sprinkled with salt.