When we think of Christmas in the UK it is often of white snow and a roaring fire, but the snow doesn’t always fall and the novelty of a cold nose easily wears off. For those keen to swap these dreary days for white sand and guaranteed sunshine, Cuba is a great option.
The celebrating of Christmas was actually banned in the island nation after the revolution and Cuba was declared an atheist country. A visit from Pope John Paul II in 1997 saw Fidel Castro restore the festival officially and since then Christmas has flourished in Cuba. So what can be expected of the festive period in this country where it was once forbidden?
Mass in Revolution Square
Churches throughout Havana hold their own midnight masses on Christmas Eve and standing at any point in the city at this time means hearing plenty of bells ringing in the important day. Others crowd into Revolution Square where large TV screens are erected to allow the faithful to watch the Pope carrying out mass live from St Peter’s in Rome.
Christmas decorations in Cuba tend to be along similar lines as those in other parts of the world, with lights, sometimes a tree, toys and bells. They do tend to be more low-key, however, with traditional nativity scenes more likely to be the focus.
The women of the family usually spend a lot of time cleaning the house prior to the Christmas celebrations, as this is seen as an important time to get things right, so before any decorating is done, this is completed.
Traditional food always takes on a significant role at Christmas time no matter where in the world you celebrate the occasion. In Cuba, this comes in the form of a whole roasted pig, which has generally been kept and fed up by the family all year. Instead of consuming it on Christmas Day, it is the night before, known as Noche Buena when the pig is eaten. Being a Latin country, festivities start late – at around 9pm or 10pm.
It remains the responsibility of the men to slaughter and prepared the pig, before it is cooked for around 12 hours. Each family will have their own variations on the side dishes that accompany the pork, which has been marinated in sofrito or mojo sauce. These dishes feature typical Cuban ingredients, such as black beans, plantains, yucca and rice. Nuts, dates and turron – a nougat desert made with almonds, honey and eggs – are eaten to complete the meal.
The giving of presents is part of the Cuban ritual of Christmas and like in the UK, children leave their stockings out on Christmas Eve for Santa Claus to fill them. The main difference is that stockings are traditionally left near a nativity scene, as opposed to a chimney or at the bottom of the bed as we might do.
A second occasion for gift giving occurs on January 6th, which is the Day of the Three Kings or Reyes Magos, as it is known in Cuba. While this goes mainly unnoticed in the UK, the Spanish-speaking world pays particular attention to the day when it is said the wise men visited the baby Jesus.
Celebrating Christmas in Cuba
Cuba’s relationship with Christmas is a complicated one due to the fact that it was outlawed for several decades. This means that some Cubans were not brought up celebrating the festival at all. For others, Christmas was still marked in small ways during the ban, but these became more open once the festivities were legalised once more.
While there are many traditions now associated with Christmas in Cuba, they generally focus around family and feasting. People staying in hotels and resorts on the island will find that Christmas is marked in its own way, allowing everyone to get involved.
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