8 typical things about the way Cubans prepare for and celebrate the New Year

Posted: 30-Dec-15 10:52

Cuba famously celebrates the end of the year in a much bigger and louder way than they do Christmas (after all Christmas celebrations virtually disappeared for over three decades until the visit of Pope John Paul I put the holy date back on the public holidays calendar again) and there are many typical things you can look forward to experience if you welcome the New Year among Cubans. If you want the full low-down on how locals celebrate and prepare ahead of the New Year, this simple guide to Cuban New Year customs and traditions will give you a good start.

8 typical things about the way Cubans prepare for and celebrate the New Year

A recent article by Marien Gonzalez published on CiberCuba, highlighted the top 10 things you can expect to see in Cuba during and leading up to the New Year festivities.

While some aspects of New Year festivities you can only experience if you actually spend time with a local family, others you can notice by observing people on the streets on a frenzy to buy enough food supplies for the big New Year’s Eve feast before stock runs out or queuing up outside shops and markets to buy New Year gifts (many exchange presents at this time instead of Christmas) or new clothes to wear to welcome the new year.

Of Marien’s list I selected my top 8 things about New Year in Cuba that I believe to be the most interesting and easier for tourists to witness:

  1. A festive atmosphere

    No other time of the year in Cuba sees such widespread joy and visible jubilation and excitement. You might also sense a slight tension as people run about in a flurry and a race against the clock to stock up on final ingredients for the big New Year dinner. It’s hard to see Cubans so focused on one common activity or target: say goodbye to the year in the biggest, loudest way possible.

  2. Family reunions

    While most Western societies celebrate special family gatherings around Christmas time, for Cubans these massive get-togethers are saved for the New Year. To wave goodbye to a year that is about to come to an end in the company of extended family members is almost a scared and inviolable ritual in many Cuban homes. Whether they live next door or hardly see each other because of physical travel distances or lack of time, this is one night where everyone is eager to meet up and catch up with each other.

  3. Long queues

    Every Cuban is serious about getting everything ready for the most important aspect of New Year celebrations: the big roast pig feast. In order to make sure every essential ingredient is well stocked up on (often there are last minute guests popping up, Cuba is definitely a place to expect the unexpected and no one wants to be caught off guard and not have enough food to offer).

    From the cassava to make the obligatory “yuca con mojo” to the plantains for the “tostones”, the real king of the feast, “el puerco asado” (which is a whole roasted pig for those who can afford it or, alternatively, a chunk of meat large enough for every guest) or even the quintessential black beans; everything is in extremely high demand during this time of year and as such supplies run out quickly so big queues ensue for those still in the hope of catching the very last. Expect to see queues everywhere from street markets to shops.

  4. The burning of the “muñecon”

    Many in Cuba say goodbye to the old year in a symbolic way that aims to burn off all the negative events. For this they usually make a full-size dummy or “muñecon” (which literally translates as big doll or puppet but which actually looks more like a scarecrow than anything else) using old torn clothes, broken shoes and items that are to be discarded because of negative associations with it (maybe they brought bad luck).

    Then they write the number of the year in big letters to symbolise that what is being burnt belongs to a chapter that is (they hope) well and truly over. Sometimes these muñecones are given the name of the “baddie” in a recent film or the most hated, evil character on a recent soap opera (in case you didn’t know Cubans love their soap operas) adding a bit of humour to lighten up the whole thing. This ritual is a sort of purge to welcome the new year with no negative leftover baggage from the previous one. Quite fun to watch if you get the chance!

  5. Loud music

    Of course the music, and you might be surprised to see it so far down the list, but putting it higher up you’d probably have thought…big yawn, yes music, but when isn’t Cuba filled with music anyway? Well this might sound like the biggest cliché ever, especially for Cuba when not having music is simply not an option regardless of the time of year.

    But it does get louder as New Year’s Eve approaches and people turn up the volume for everyone else to hear; some neighbourhoods even battle it out and test their home sound equipment and speakers to see whose music is the loudest on the day, and who gets the honour of playing the New Year’s official soundtracks in their block. It’s crazy (and ear-scratching at times) but a lot of fun if you get into the spirit.

  6. The sip, the toast and the neighbour’s hug

    The greatest thing about these kind of big celebrations is the high spirits they put everyone in. Be it for the free-flowing booze, the company of good old friends or family members, but, more likely, the intoxicating aspect of people’s cheerful mood, the lead up to New Year and New Year’s Eve is a time for people to make truces, to forgive it all, forget and look past old quarrels. The end of the year in Cuba is full of hugs, impromptu toasts among neighbours, camaraderie and affectionate gestures all around.

  7. The food

    I’ve already said that in Cuba the absolute king of the New Year feast is the roasted pig. The luckiest families will roast a whole one on a spit or a grill, and those who have to make do with a leg or another part of the pig will slowly roast it in the oven or on a big pot on the hob. But pig rules New Year’s Eve in Cuba, however it is cooked or served and in however little or big portions it’s found in, everyone tries to ensure they’ve got some.

    Alongside it starring dishes include white rice and black beans or congri, yuca con mojo, fried plantains or sweet potato, salads (huge variations what these consist of and depends on what’s in season, but usually includes tomato and avocado at the very least and sometimes also lettuce and cucumber if available). To drink? Well, most can’t get their hands on fine champagne, but many would prefer beer anyway and some might toast with some wine.

  8. Purification Rituals

    Aside from the burning of the “muñecon” which is often more of a group activity done between members of an entire block (and which not everyone does anyway) Cubans have other ways of cleaning the air and the atmosphere to welcome the New Year in the purest way possible.

    As the clock strikes twelve and the New Year starts, most families throw a bucket of (usually dirty) water to the street, many clean the house and then throw the dirt and the soiled water outside, others pour a little of whatever they’re drinking on the floor as an offering to the afro-Cuban saints (although to be fair most people do this anytime they open a bottle of alcoholic beverage to keep the saints happy) and many others have their own family rituals which could include symbolic burnings, sweeping the floor, etc.

    So if you’re a tourist wandering around Cuban streets on New Year’s Eve at the strike of twelve, beware of balconies and windows, look up, left, right and centre and keep your eyes peeled if you don’t want to start the new year drenched in soiled water or dirt.

So, there you have it, my top peculiarities that make New Year's a special and unique time to be in Cuba, whether you attempt to join in with the locals and crash a local party (you'd probably be more than welcome to it anyway) or observe as an intrigued outsider as various of the events describe here unfold. If you happen to be in Cuba now, right now, then take the time to look around and see how many of the things listed here you can spot or, even better yet, be a part of.


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