Christmas in Cuba: Turkey or Hot Dogs? / 14ymedio, Luz Escobar

The shops are preparing their Christmas decorations. (Luz Escobar / 14ymedio)
The shops are preparing their Christmas decorations. (Luz Escobar / 14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Luz Escobar, Havana, 24 December 2015 — Cuban kitchens and restaurants are preparing for Christmas Eve. The menu that is placed on the tables will evidence the purchasing power of each family and deepen social differences. While some make reservations in exclusive places with gourmet food, others will be satisfied with products from the ration market or with hot dogs: the cheapest ‘protein’ in the convertible peso markets.

Christmas traditions are reemerging on the island little by little. The first garlanded trees in public places, after decades of censorship, date back to the nineties of the last century, with the dollarization of the economy and the emergence of private businesses. But only at the end of 1997 was the celebration again “sanctified” by officialdom, with the decreeing of 25 December as a holiday.

Since then, Christmas Eve has become more sophisticated for those who have access to hard currency. Twelve grapes at midnight and sangria are served on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve. A mix of traditions typical of the Cuban melting pot. The government tries to emphasize the importance of the December 31st festivities, the eve of the Triumph of the Revolution, but it is ever more obvious that in the last month of the year there is competition among dates.

Nougat, a Cuban tradition, turkey on sale for the equivalent of three month’s salary, and rum, lots of rum, combine in the menu that families in the emerging middle class will share. Almost eight years after allowing Cubans to stay in domestic hotels, these locales have launched a race to capture a broad spectrum of customers for Christmas Eve.

The Hotel Copacabana in Havana’s Playa district tries to compete with the area’s private restaurants. For 30 convertible pesos, the monthly salary of a surgeon, each person can serve themselves from a buffet with everything from the traditional turkey, to the most local, a shredded beef stew Cubans call “old clothes,” along with seafood, salmon, chops, smoked or cured loin and international cheeses. All that with a welcome cocktail, live music and Christmas cake.

Nearby, on Third Avenue, Gladys’s family is preparing a very different dinner. “I could only buy three pounds of pork because it is very expensive,” comments this retiree, whose daughter, who has emigrated, brought her nougat from Madrid. “The problem is that now there are so many expenses in December, with dinner on the 31st and the 24th,” complains the woman who insists she prefers “how it was until a few years ago, when this day was like any other.”

For Gladys’s family the expenses are not for food alone. “The littlest grandson wanted his tree, with the creche and everything,” says the pensioner. However, she acknowledges, “They are very nice days spent with family and it makes me remember when I was a child and my grandmother would sing carols and my parents put the gifts under the Christmas tree.”

In Santiago de Cuba the hotel with the same name has also been prepared for the occasion. The gourmet buffet, with prices that range from 45 to 50 convertible pesos per person, has options with Italian or Island food, along with a glass of wine. Something that seems like a dream for a province where poverty has spread in recent years.

The emerging middle class with fewer resources resort to deals that do not exceed 20 convertible pesos, drinks included. This is the case with the Havana Jazz Café, where for this price a person gets three glasses of wine, a variety of international food and a Cuban dessert. Jazz plays from the stage until after midnight.

State restaurants like The Bunny Rabbit serve “abundant local food with roast pork and a typical side dish” in Cuban pesos. Taking home a stuffed rabbit rises to 180 Cuban pesos, the monthly pension of a retired teacher. “We help you not have to cook for a celebration like this,” an employee at the door advertises with a menu in hand and a bow tie around his neck.

The ration system markets in Havana and other provinces have received an unexpected quota of frozen chicken. “It is for the anniversary of the Revolution” the butchers repeat, without much conviction. For many it has not gone unnoticed that the supply arrived on the shelves before Christmas dinner. “This is what you will eat tonight,” says Yaquelín, a impoverished resident of La Timba neighborhood, near the Plaza of the Revolution.

Cardinal Jaime Ortega y Alamino spoke about Christmas in a message broadcast on state television saying that it “is not a year-end party, is in itself a celebration of a great weight, historical, spiritual, cultural.” Although the prelate acknowledged that despite Cuban shops being full of Christmas decorations “we still do not know” what this celebration is about.

Others have their own delicacy reserved for the night, leaving aside traditions and overspending. “I bought a pack of little dogs (hot dogs) for today and I make them with with sauce, which my kids love,” says a polyclinic cleaning woman in the municipality of San Miguel del Padron. “After all Jesus was born in a stable, surrounded by pigs and cows, so you can not ask for more.”