Nostalgia, the Inseparable Ingredient of a Cuban Christmas

Nostalgia for those who are missing, nostalgia for what we don’t have on the table, nostalgia for what they took from us. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Generation Y, Havana, 25 December 2019 — If I had to select one ingredient inseparable from a Cuban Christmas, it would be nostalgia. Nostalgia for those who have emigrated and are no longer at the family table, nostalgia for a distant and lost time that the elderly remember during this time of year, nostalgia even for those born in a Cuba where extreme atheism reigned and where we lost these celebrations for long years, and now we even have nostalgia for what they took from us as children.

2019 has been a difficult year for Cubans. The economy has been stagnant for a long time and in September it sank even further with an energy crisis that the government categorized as “temporary” but that continues to affect everyday issues such as transportation, the availability and supply of food, and agricultural production. Hence, this Christmas many have not been able to travel to another province to celebrate with their relatives as they traditionally do every Christmas Eve.

Food prices have also risen despite the official attempt to impose price caps or maximum prices on some products. So the traditional dinner with roast pork, rice, yucca with mojo and salad will be inaccessible for the wallets of many families this December, and they will have to settle for more modest dishes. Meanwhile, another sizable share of the Cuban population will be able to dine in a special way on Christmas Eve and also on December 31, thanks to an emigrated relative who has paid the bill for the celebrations.

Those who have access to the convertible currency, receive remittances, have a private business or frequently travel abroad may complete their Christmas celebrations with the traditional Christmas nougat, a bottle of wine and even some grapes, traditional for New Year’s Eve. In the homes of the high officials and the leaders of the Communist Party there are most likely banquets, replete with rum and beer, the uncorking of some champagne and Vivas! for over 60 years in power.

But also, in many Cuban homes, nothing special will happen on the night of December 24 because after decades of interrupted Christmas celebrations, families will concentrate their celebrations on the night of December 31, Saint Sylvester Day. When a tradition is curtailed, interrupted, severed, it takes a long time to restore it and reincorporate it into the life of a people. Unfortunately, in the case of Christmas, it is only since December 1997 (a few days before the historic visit of Pope John Paul II to this Island) that Cubans were able to recover December 25 as a holiday. Only 22 years have passed and that is not enough time for a tradition to take root again.

However, some end-of-year rituals are maintained, such as throwing water from balconies, windows, doors and terraces at midnight on December 31 as a way to clean up all the bad things of the year that is ending and start the new year that is beginning cleaned of problems. For this 2020 we will need a lot of water, because the economic forecast for the country is not flattering and the stubbornness of those who govern us continues to aim to maintain state control over many productive sectors, despite the demonstrated inefficiency of that model. Political repression will continue because a Party that has been imposed by force and that has tried to quench the plurality of trends and voices that exist on this Island can keep its hold on power only in this way.

Other Cubans, on December 31, will burn a doll made of old clothes and straw as a symbol of the destruction of the negative and the old before the new January begins. But in recent years another custom has taken hold: leaving the house with a suitcase and walking around the block or making a tour of the street where we live, the neighborhood we inhabit. A ritual that seeks to attract a trip, a visa, an invitation to leave the country and probably to not return. On an island on the run we see more and more people carrying their luggage on the night of the last day of the year.

Also added to this December is the countdown to a monetary unification – the elimination of Cuba’s system of two official currencies – along with salary reform and the end of some subsidies that will undoubtedly be a blow to the poorest families with the least resources. Thus, “uncertainty” is the word that defines the year that is about to begin and that feeling of having too many doubts and very few answers will weigh heavily on family tables this Christmas. But, I repeat, nostalgia will be the main ingredient of the celebrations, the unwanted guest, the protagonist of these celebrations.

Nostalgia for those who are missing, nostalgia for what we don’t have on the table, nostalgia for what they took from us. Nostalgia for what we could be.


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