HAVANA TIMES — Back around 1800, the priest of San Juan de los Remedios, in Cuba’s province of Villa Clara, organized the town’s children so that, on the 24th of December, at 6 in the morning, they would go around the different neighborhoods making noise and waking people up so they would attend mass.
He probably never imagined he was giving birth to a popular festivity that would continue to be celebrated for centuries, bringing about a very Cuban (and somewhat unorthodox) way of celebrating Christmas which entailed dancing congas in the streets and setting off thousands of fireworks.
The Parrandas de Remedios (“Remedios Sprees”) are the oldest and most spontaneous festivities celebrated in Cuba, free of political speeches and bureaucratic cultural activities. Every year, two neighborhoods – San Salvador and El Carmen – engage in a competition replete with lights, music, colors and fire.
For months, participants from the two neighborhoods work in secret to construct a gigantic panels fitted with light displays and an enormous Christmas float. They also gather tens of thousands of fireworks for a spectacular competition that lights up the sky.
To stay in the town of Remedios on Christmas Eve, people make reservations in January, as State and private accommodations are booked almost immediately. You can rent a place in a nearby town, but then you will be able to sleep in the early morning and the experience won’t be the same.
We arrived on the 23rd and stayed in the very heart of the town, in front of the park where the competitions are held. At 6 am the next morning, we were woken by a string of hundreds of firework explosions that made the walls of the house shake.
Very much against the wishes of the priest who set the tradition in motion, most people go, not to church, but to the park, where they can party and enjoy the fireworks that announce the start of the 24-hour, non-stop festivities.
This year, the Cuban government donated US $29 thousand to the neighborhood of San Salvador and the same sum to El Carmen. With this and other donations – some from former “parranderos” now living abroad – participants must purchase all of the materials they need to build the float, the light display and fireworks.
No one knows for certain how many rockets and mortars are fired into the sky during the Parrandas. Some tell me that, on occasion, it’s been as many as 250 thousand. Though the fireworks are purchased legally, at companies operated by the Armed Forces, the town’s people haggle to buy more than their allotted quota or to get the best in stock.
Each neighborhood takes one of the streets facing each other at the park and fences it in, setting up the firework launchers there. In the meantime, the town’s people who attend the festivities scramble to buy hats to protect themselves from the firework remains that will fall from the sky by the hundreds.
When the competition begins, the place turns into a real warzone: gunpowder smoke fills the park and the sky is lit up by explosions of every kind. Competitors wear earmuffs, long-sleeved shirts and handkerchiefs over their noses and mouths.
Neighboring streets are filled up with food kiosks. Though the most popular snack is the suckling pig sandwich, one also finds rice and meat combos, popcorn, fried snacks, doughnuts and plenty of drinks, pops, malts, beer and rum.
Scores of loudspeakers scattered across the town play loud music all day while thousands of people move down the streets, dancing to conga rhythms, laughing boisterously and entering into heated debates in defense of their neighborhoods.
All the while, competitors finish assembling their floats and test their gigantic, light-studded panels. They spare no effort, as these artworks (along with the fireworks) are the things people will judge to decide which of the two neighborhoods is the winner.
The light-panel competition begins at 10 at night. Assembled out of thousands of light bulbs, the panels display changing and moving colors that capture the public’s attention until the beginning of a new round of fireworks that light up the night sky.
Though all manner of snacks are sold on the street during festivities, the suckling pig sandwich ranks first.
The floats, which must be taken around the park and meet face to face so that people can decide which is best, do not come out until 4 in the morning. Competitors have worked in their construction the entire year and invested considerable sums of money (a costume can cost as much as US $400).
Though no official panel decided who the winner was, at 6 in the morning of the 25th, when a new string of firework explosions announced the end of the festivities, the residents of San Salvador entered the park playing a funeral march to honor their defeated competitors and ended with a celebratory conga.
The party was over. The townspeople headed for their beds, the occasional drunk walked away with uncertain steps, vendors dismantled their kiosks, fire-fighters returned to the station and garbage collectors began to clean the streets while a swarm of children set out in search of unexploded fireworks.
By mid-morning, foreigners and Cubans from out of town had begun to slowly file out of town. Roque, a photographer for the AFP press agency, told us that “the parrandas are addictive.” I think he’s right: many of us have already made reservations for next year.
(*) Visit Fernando Ravsberg’s blog (in Spanish).