HAPPY NEW YEAR! Or feliz fin de año – one of the biggest celebrations in the Cuban calendar. It’s the survival of another year, and the optimism of looking forward to what the next year might bring, that prompts everyone to greet each other with ‘felicidades’ in the days surrounding the 31st. But how do we celebrate in Cuba? What are the traditions? Celebrating with the family in Camagüey for the last few years, here are the five things which have stood out most to me.
1. It’s all about the PIGGY
If you can manage it, a spit-roast hog is a New Year’s tradition and most families will try and eat some pork for dinner. A lot of families buy their pig a few months in advance and keep it at home to fatten it up nicely, before killing it on the morning of the big day. Unsettling, high-pitched squeals could be heard all morning; definitely a bad day to be a swine. Our pig wasn’t resident, so early in the morning, we took a walk to the house where she had been living. We arrived to find that Ms Pig had already been encouraged (with what hopefully was a swift knife cut to a main artery) to shuffle off her mortal coil, and all that was left was to shave her, clear out the insides, clean her, get her onto a huge wooden pole and loaded onto the side of a bike taxi.
After that palaver, the hog was roasted over charcoal for seven hours, during which time someone needed to be continually turning it. We took shifts obviously. By midnight, we had a beautifully roasted pork, with more than enough meat to feed the hordes (see no. 5) for the next few days.
2. Buckets at the ready
If you spend anytime at all in Cuba, you will know that cleaning of the ubiquitous tiled floors is usually done with masses of water – actually a very eco friendly way of washing. Cubans take this to the next level at midnight though, when buckets of water are hurled through doorways, off balconies and into the street. Why? To get rid of all the bad things that happened in the previous year, to wash out the old and make room for what the new year brings. At midnight, we were out in the street, getting slightly soaked as neighbours flung a bucketload into the street. No harm done though, especially considering the other street-based tradition…
3. Burning Man
Slightly creepy looking scarecrow-type things start appearing outside home from the end of December. These effigies represent the old year, and are set alight, again to ‘burn’ away the bad parts of the old year before bringing in the new. Are you spotting a theme?! In our street in Camagüey, two of these guys were flickering away, giving the whole street a slightly apocalyptic look.
4. Buen Viaje!
It’s never been easier than now for Cubans to travel, however, it’s still not as easy as just hopping on a plane. Perhaps that’s the reason for tradition number four, which is to grab your suitcase and (dodging the flames and sploshing buckets) to race around the block with it. Why? To ensure that your new year will involve some travelling. Sounds silly, but we’ve done it for the last three years now and have had some pretty incredible trips out of Cuba, so it’s not a traditional we are giving up anytime soon.
Finally, my favourite part of this time of year is the atmosphere of friendliness and community. The doorbell rings continually with friends and neighbours just dropping by, and usually staying for a coffee or a quick drink of something stronger. Coming from a culture where you wouldn’t dream of turning up unannounced at any house but the closest of friends’, I find this feature of Cuban culture rather lovely and it certainly creates a party atmosphere. I am always astonished by my mother-in-law’s abilities to whip up a hot meal for fifteen people, seemingly out of nowhere. The giant pig helps, as does the constantly cooking rice, beans and never-ending coffee.
Somehow, celebrating New Year with more gusto than Christmas seems more appropriate, especially here where life for many people is quite tough. I’m starting to really feel that sense of excitement about what 2019 brings! Happy New Year!