I have quite the cultural Christmas tradition. And the traditions change as we change locations for the holidays. Both my parents are Cuban, and have lived in Miami for decades. My dad left Cuba in 1961, and except for a brief stint in Venezuela, has lived in Miami ever since. My mom left Cuba when she was 12, and lived in Guatemala from ages 13-19. Her and her family moved to the US in 1970, except her older sister, who married a local and started a family, and stayed in Guatemala.
Nochebuena (Christmas Eve)
In the Hispanic tradition, December 24 is the “real” Christmas. It’s called Nochebuena, or “good night.” On Christmas Eve families get together for the big family celebration. In our Miami Cuban bubble, we regularly lie and invite everyone 30 minutes to an hour ahead of the planned events, but nowadays everyone has caught on, so my family invitations include what time we plan to sit down to eat, this way everyone can schedule their other family commitments.
I usually have two or three family events to make appearances at depending on how combative my mom is feeling. I prefer to start at my brother’s house because they do old school Cuban Christmas: roast pork which is made in the Caja China (Chinese box) if I’m lucky, with white rice, black beans, and fried plantains. My brothers take their pork preparations very seriously, and it shows in the finished meal. Caja China (pronounced ka-ha chee-nuh) is a box that you put the marinated whole pork into for about six hours and slow roast it. I’m not super sure how it works, but I will tell you it is one of the single greatest things ever.
Next up (if I lose the battle with my mom) is my cousin on my dad’s side’s house. They make a decent meal. It’s never my only stop so the food is a blur. But they are rowdy, and they err on the side of the “Tony Montana” Cuban. They drink a lot, play dominoes, and dance salsa.
Finally, I go to my mom’s family get together. I grew up with my cousins on my mom’s side. There are 25 of us, not counting spouses or kids. I’m somewhere in the middle. I’m also close with my mom’s siblings of which there 9 not including her or spouses. By the time I show up everyone has already eaten, and everyone is pretty tipsy. Once I’ve done the hello rounds I sit at the kid’s table (we’re all well over 20 at this point, and there’s now a new generation of kids’ table, but we will never be allowed to sit with the adults) and play whatever party games my cousins have decided to play. The games get pretty competitive, but it’s all good fun. No one in my family goes to midnight mass anymore on Christmas Eve, because that would require being sober.
In Guatemala, on Christmas Eve the women and children go to mass in the early evening. Men oftentimes have to work on Christmas Eve. After mass the women go home, and finish preparing dinner while they wait for the men to get home. For Christmas Eve my cousin has taken over the cooking of the Cuban fare, the usual spread consists of pork, congri (a rice dish where the rice and black beans are cooked together), and tostones (a different kind of fried plantains). It’s literally the best.
Once the men arrive, we all sit down to eat at the table. After dinner the kids are distracted while one of the adults grabs a garbage bag filled with presents that Santa “dumps.” At midnight the kids anxiously await the sounds of bells which signal the arrival (and departure) of Santa. They rush all over the house to find the bag of presents (kids in Guatemala, even from upper middle class families get way less gifts than kids in the US, like the all the gifts for the 3 kids in the family will fit in one garbage bag). Unlike in the US, presents are exchanged at midnight, and then everyone goes to bed.
In my family, my half-siblings come over on Christmas Day. We cater because my mom doesn’t cook, and Spanish food has become the tradition. Depending on where we order from we’ll do a platter of fried garbanzo beans (garbanzos cooked with a tomato sauce, a ton of garlic and onion, and Spanish sausage), paella (a Spanish rice dish with seafood), and arroz con pollo (Cuban rice and chicken) for me and the kids because I don’t like paella. And wine, a lot of wine. This is usually a lunch thing, and everyone is gone by mid-afternoon to go to mass, except the heathen yours truly who will occasionally end up on kid duty while the parents go to mass, which somehow lasts two to three hours.
When we’re in Guatemala for Christmas, on Christmas day we get up and go to my aunt’s house to finish the leftovers from the night before. It’s most of the same people from the night before, but it’s more low key. On the 25th everyone has let their maids go (they work the 24th), so no one is in a hurry to go destroy their own homes, and we just lounge around until someone decides it’s time to leave.
Cuban New Year’s isn’t super memorable, or different at all than regular white people NYE. However, we do eat 12 grapes at midnight, which until recently I had assumed everyone did. Now I suspect it’s just a Hispanic thing.
For a funner cultural NYE celebration let’s switch over to the holidays in Guatemala. On New Year’s Eve the same crew gets back together again. Dinner isn’t a sit down affair though this time, and a few friends of the family join in the festivities. We mostly just sit around drinking and chatting until midnight, when we eat our grapes and then go outside to light a kite-like contraption on fire and set it adrift. This usually takes a few tries, so there’s always a back up. Then we watch the entire city light up with fireworks. The younger adults and kids have an epic fireworks fight, there’s this special kind that are like wands that shoot fireball sparks out and we use those to shoot each other, until someone gets hurt or angry and then we have to stop. Funnily enough everyone buys a carton of cigarettes to light the fireworks because Guatemala City is built on and around mountains and matches would be useless. It’s also a great way to sneak a cigarette when you’re an introvert who has spent every waking moment with relatives for over a week and low key might be about to lose it.
But hands down, the best part of NYE in Guatemala is looking down at the city from the road outside my cousin’s house. They live on the outskirts of the city relatively higher up, on the side of a mountain. And you can see the city in the valley underneath just bursting with fireworks and it’s just the most amazing thing. Disney and Dubai fireworks are great, but it’s just not the same as watching an entire city light up like that.
Feast of the Three Kings
When I was a kid my parents used to celebrate the Feast of the Three Kings, or the Feast of the Epiphany. My parents didn’t get presents on Christmas growing up, and instead they got three gifts on the Feast of the Three Kings (January 6) in commemoration of the gifts the Wise Men brought Baby Jesus. So on Three Kings day my parents would set out three gifts for me in front of my mom’s favorite nativity (every surface of my parents’ house is covered in nativity scenes), and in the morning before school I would open them. I’m not entirely sure when we stopped doing this, but probably around the time I graduated high school. To this day, though, if I need something around that time of the year, my mom will be like “ok esta bien, para los Reyes Magos” (ok fine, for the Three Kings).
That is my Hispanic holiday cocktail. It’s incredible and I wouldn’t change a thing.