Without the religious significance it has in the U.S., Christmas (known as Nochebuena in Spanish) is a cherished period in Cuba. Locals travel from every corner of the country to be with their love ones and have a nice dinner together. Decorations don’t have the glamour as seen in other places, but they are creative and sometimes funny. Everybody tries to put a little Christmas tree or even lights inside or outside their houses. In this article everything you should know about New Year’s Eve in Cuba and you can live it with us.
It’s especially surprising to walk Havana’s streets. The World Heritage city dresses its colonial venues of original tones, and the paladares (small privately owned restaurants) offer the most innovative dishes. There is also space for religious manifestations as well: Catholics love the mass celebrated at The Cathedral of Havana, where Jesus’s birth is represented with real height figures; while the believers of Santeria or Yoruba religion prepare to close the year with a cleansing ceremony of singing and drums.
However, New Year’s Eve is the most celebrated on the island, probably because the 1st day of every year is also the date that commemorates the arrival of the revolutionaries to Havana when they took power. January 1st 1959 marks the triumph of the revolution. It has historically been a date for large parades and military deployments. Nowadays it has a more cheerful atmosphere especially the large number of live concerts performed by the best Cubans musicians.
New Year’s Eve in Cuba, the best traditions
Every country has his own way to celebrate the final days of the year. In Cuba, it’s time for street parties, family visits and lots of delicious typical foods. One of the greatest attractions of this period are the numerous traditions you’ll be able to observe as part of a Cuban family.
Everybody is family
Cubans are warm and friendly. When visiting even the humblest houses, travelers are surprised by kindness and generosity: people offer not only their last drop of coffee, or their own beds, but their hearts.
The end of the year is a period for reflecting and family reunions everywhere, however in Cuba the celebration takes to the streets and there is not time for sorrow. You’ll be dancing, eating, laughing with strangers, who maybe don’t know your language but try to share their happiness and good wishes with you.
At the casas particulares, the owners’ hospitality will make you feel at home and you will be surprised to welcome the new year among laughs and Bucanero beers, tamales, pork and salsa.
Roasting pork as a ritual
Roasting the entire pig using charcoal or a grill is a tradition from the countryside of Cuba. While the techniques can change, the objective is always the same: to encourage community spirit. Early in the morning, somebody prepares the pig and the fire. Cooking lasts the entire day, and friends, family member, neighbors, even you, the visitor, have to move for some minutes the pork, take care of the charcoal and play domino. The energizing a thick soup with vegetables, meat, garlic, onion and pepper is usually what is eaten at lunch…Oh, even the smell revives the dead, the saying goes.
At midnight dinner is served, and Cubans say the food is even better after so much rum and stories. It’s usually congrí (rice and red beans), the roasted pork, boiled cassava with a “mojo” of fried garlic and lemon, salad and tostones (fried smashed bananas). Who wants the crunchy pork skin, golden and tasty? Meeee!
Water at Midnight
The first advice of a Cuban when talking about New Year’s Eve will be: “Don’t walk under balconies at midnight”. That’s because everybody knows you risk to start the year soaked and dirty. An ancient tradition of the country indicates to clean the house in December 31st from the last room until the entrance door and keeping the bucket prepared for midnight. At 12 o’clock you’ll hear the water, which supposedly gathered all the bad influences of the old year, throw from every home to the streets. Then, Cubans are ready for the next 365 days yet to come.
Burning the bad year
If you walk the streets in Cuba during the first minutes of the New Year you could witness the burning of the doll. The popular ceremony looks to bring prosperity for the year and it’s based in the belief that we need to burn all the wicked memories of the past to clear the path for the future. Dolls are made collectively with old clothes, some of them even have glasses, cigars and hats and very cocky attitudes. They take the name of soap operas’ or real life villains. And when the countdown finishes the fire begins while people expect with happiness the luck yet to come.
Walking with a suitcase to earn a trip
Traveling overseas is a big deal in Cuba. The low salaries and other economic difficulties that people face turn any journey into an epic odyssey. That’s why New Year’s Eve offers a unique opportunity for a very curious ritual. On December 31st, when the bells toll, you will see people walking around their block with a suitcase. Neighbors laugh but many of them join the interested who believes what the tradition dictates: if you complete the block with your “luggage” this New Year your trip is secured.
Real or not, why not taking the chance? This New Year’s Eve be prepared with your case, we are sure you will want to come back to Cuba.
Read also: 5 cozy paladares you shouldn’t miss in Old Havana
New Year’s Eve in Cuba, an incredible trip
Espíritu Travel offers the New Year’s in Havana trip, a journey which provides an authentic insight to Havana’s daily life and celebration style, tailored to fulfill the traveler’s needs.
The trip really began at Havana Airport when one of Espíritu Travel’s five star guides welcomes you to Cuba. She or he will be your local expert during your trip, and soon to be a friend whose expertise on the country helps you to discover all its mysteries. Staying in a Cuban home is the best way to feel the local culture and warmth, that’s why we propose to you to stay in casas particulares, private homes that are like a micro bed and breakfast. Intimate and comfortable, a casa particular is ideal to have a great service.
After you have arrived and checked in at your casa. you start your walking tour through the oldest neighborhoods of the Old Havana, visit a local market and a Bodega de Alimentos where you hear about the Cuban monthly rations system. During the last days of the year there is magic in the air, so it’s not rare to find people dancing and the streets, free live music in the beautiful San Francis Square or a theater play for all publics at any museum.
Exploring Old Havana is great, but we don’t stop there, the neighborhood of Vedado also awaits you: the Partagás Tobacco factory, the infamous Plaza de la Revolución, the incredible Fusterlandia and the Hotel Nacional are just some of the unmissable places to get soaked in the Cuban culture. And, to finish the evening, who hasn’t dreamed of cruising the roads in a classic 1950s American car?
For the end of the year, be prepared to recharge the good energies with a 1 hour drive to Las Terrazas. Located at the Biosphere Reserve Sierra del Rosario, this rural community was built in total harmony with the fauna and flora of the area. Besides the great bird watching paths, you will relax with the magnificent landscape of cascades and mountains and the authoctonus coffee. Everything to get you ready for the night at the Buena Vista Social Club. Every year the venue organizes a spectacular night to receive the New Year with mojitos, authentic plates and music.
Sounds good? You are still on time to book Espíritu Travel’s New Year’s Eve in Havana trip.