Cuban Juju: New Year’s & Beyond

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Havana is a place that holds dear its superstitions and traditions. Where the former leaves off and the latter begins is a tough and tangled business, thanks in part to the very serious and more relevant and prevalent than you might imagine AfroCuban juju floating about the island. While slaves were being forced over here from the Congo and the Gambia, Senegal and Nigeria, bringing their rich and powerful belief systems with them, the Spanish colonists and Catholic Church (the Imperialist 1% digamos) were also in the mix, inventing Cuban traditions.

This wasn’t an entirely innocent affair, I learned recently from Fernando Martínez Heredia (among the country’s most knowledgeable and respected historians), as he worked the rocker in my living room and regaled me with the whole ignoble story about the arrival of the Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre on these shores. According to the legend, Cuba’s patron saint floated into the Bay of Nipe 400 years ago to save three local fisherman adrift in their skiff. With the seas threatening to capsize and surely kill the two mulatto hermanos and young slave aboard, a beautiful, diminutive black virgin floated towards the pobres, the raft on which she rode inscribed with the message: “I am the Virgin of Charity.” With her appearance, the sea instantly and magically calmed, becoming flat as a plate, as we say here.

A legend so pat and serendipitous begs certain questions: Exactly what would they be fishing for in that inland bay? ‘There are no fish worth the time in Nipe,’ Fernando observes. And what of the message, carried by the trio back to the folks living in the area? ‘How convenient that those guys could read – unheard of at the time for people of their station – and Spanish no less,’ my favorite historian continues. But what’s truly intriguing, says Fernando (and I agree), is the appearance, at this precise time, of similar virgins elsewhere in Latin America – the Virgen del Cobre, the Virgen de Guadalupe in Mexico, St Rose of Lima. Turns out there was nothing coincidental or mystical about this plethora of virgins: secular and clerical big wigs determined that consolidating power over their far flung New World colonies required a spiritual component beyond the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. So they created her (see note 1).

But the Spanish also introduced more benign customs, many of which mixed with those of African slaves of yore, more modern traditions and superstitions from around the globe, and others which are purely, wonderfully Cuban. In short, the traditions we observe here are an ajiaco, a stew of culture and influences that mirror Cuban society itself.

Need a karmic boost or extra dash of good luck? Visit El Caballero de Paris, frozen in midstride at the doorstep to the Iglesia de San Francisco de Asís and give his bronze beard a stroke or two – already polished to a high sheen by untold masses who have thusly petitioned for luck before you. If things are such that more pro-active measures are required, drop a coin (the bigger, the better!) down the wishing well at the opulent entrance to the Hotel Nacional; utter your desire aloud and hopefully it will come true.

When you really need to invoke the city’s store of good luck, taking three turns around the sacred ceiba facing El Templete each November 16 is an age-old Cuban tradition (dating back to those Spaniards again) for improving one’s lot or luck. Don’t forget to lay some coins at the base of the tree for extra aché (folks in the know tell me it can be CUCs or pesos cubanos since the spirits also maneuver in the double economy). And speaking of age old traditions: who hasn’t seen the red ribbons flying from the undercarriage of every Lada and Buick, Mitsubishi, and Muscovich around here? De rigueur, this good luck charm for the open road.

Sometimes I think Cubans take all this superstition stuff a bit too far, like trying to ward off evil spirits with strong scents. Why else would someone burn incense in a bakery of all places or douse themselves so early and often with cheap, noxious perfume? More than once I’ve come home from clubs or alit from cars, my taste buds coated with someone’s idea of a come-hither scent. But I digress…

Where traditions and superstitions really gain traction here is on New Year’s Eve. There’s the costumbre of eating 12 grapes on the last day of the year – one for each month, a wish made with each fruit popped into your mouth. This comes from the Spanish I’m told, but I’ve yet to take a shine to this ritual: it seems greedy to make a dozen wishes (I’d be happy with just one or three), plus grapes cost $4/lb here, so it makes for a pricey gambit.

Maybe you’ve been unfortunate enough to be walking under a balcony or open window ‘round midnight on December 31st, in which case you were unexpectedly and unceremoniously drenched by falling waters (don’t worry: it’s clean). One of our endearing and enduring traditions here is to heave a bucket of water out the window at the stroke of midnight, the idea being that you’re chucking all the bad shit from the year previous. I don’t know where this tradition originated (neither do any of the Cubans I’ve been asking), but I was the first at our party with bucket at the ready once 2011 was over and done with.

By far, my favorite New Year’s tradition (aside from religiously observing it with family while stuffing myself silly with roast pork and yucca and smoking one of the amazing high quality cigars that always come my way this time of year) is the walk around the block with your suitcase – a tradition/superstition that improves your chances of traveling in the upcoming year.

On a balcony overlooking the Malecón this December 31st, I ducked falling waters while the cannons boomed across the Bay, couples kissed, and glasses clinked. A sultry wind blew and I waved with delight at all the folks streaming from their homes to wheel their luggage over buckling sidewalks and potholed streets.

To all of you wishing to travel or hoping to fall in love, entreating the spirits for good health or a prosperous 2012, I toast you and hope all your dreams come true. To Cuba and all my friends and family here, there, and elsewhere: I raise my glass with love and respect and hope we continue to reap what we sow.

2012: We’ve got high hopes, in spite of it all.

Feliz Año Nuevo everyone.


Ive been talking to folks here about their New Year’s traditions since writing this post and a few have mentioned burning all that’s bad from the previous year in curbside fires in Boyeros y mas alla (mentioned by Kristen in comments below), while in Artemisa they burn effigies made of old clothes and such. The dirty water  (and much less toilet water – mentioned by Yemaya in the comments below) doesn’t have any adherents I’ve asked, but we do agree that we won’t be drinking sugar water this year, in accordance with Ifa’s  letra del ano.


1. You may have heard about La Virgencita’s recent tour around the island. If not, you’ll definitely hear about her as 2012 unfolds since The Pope’s visit to Cuba has been confirmed for March 26-28; his trip kicks off in Santiago de Cuba and a pilgrimage to meet the Virgen.



Filed under Cuban customs, Cuban idiosyncracies, Cuban phrases, Living Abroad

22 responses to “Cuban Juju: New Year’s & Beyond

  1. johnabbotsford

    El Caballero de Paris – Mrs Abbotsford insists on a foto with him EVERY trip to Havana.

  2. Another new one I saw this year was burning the old year. With my Dad in tow (who’s usually sawing logs by 8 pm) we left our New Year’s Eve venue right after midnight to drive some family home and saw several campfires burning around the city. My sister in law commented that they were burning what was left of 2011. Not sure why I’d never noticed this before, but there you go. And what about throwing some coins in the bay if you take the Lanchita de Regla across? Great post, Conner.

  3. Fascinating traditions/superstitions. I had never heard of this tradition of going for “una vuelta a la manzana” with your suitcase until the other day when I read the blog “Life on the Expat Lane”, by Miss Footloose.
    It makes me realise what a boring people we are, in comparison, on this side of the Atlantic…
    Feliz Año Nuevo!

    • This was a topic of conversation around the cuban Dec 31st dinner table: how NYE traditions compare in NY (get stupid drunk and try and get kissed is about the size of it; and the ball drop which I won’t go near!) and we conlcuded that it’s much richer here on the island!

  4. We’ve got the suitcase walk around the block in Chile as well! And you do see people doing it. And eating twelve grapes at midnight, wearing yellow underwear, etc. Love seeing what Cuba and Chile have in common!

    • Ooooh! I forgot about the underwear: two years ago, my sister-in-law’s sister-in-law (who I knew not at all) gave me a pair of pink underwear – the good luck tradition in Argentina. Thanks for the reminder – Im gonna wear em today!

  5. Yemaya

    I wouldn’t be too sure about the balcony buckets being clean water Conner. In the Colon barrio of Centro at least, to get the full cleansing effect and to really throw last year behind you, you need to mop the floors and then throw that water at midnight!

    According to popular street agreement, some people even throw the contents of “el orinal”, but whether that’s true or not I don’t know….

  6. Conner, what a wonderful post! They have similar traditions in Cusco, minus the thrown water, plus a breakneck run three times around the Plaza de Armas at the stroke of midnight. With hundreds of inebriated party-goers and fireworks going off at ground level all around, its a terrifying dash I was glad to give a miss this year.

  7. Caney

    Funny how a superstition/tradition arose in just 7 years when the statue of Spaniard José María López Lledín was placed at the San Francisco church entrance… reminds me of the tomb of Amelia Goyri, “La Milagrosa”, at the Colon cemetery.

    Another “New Year Tradition” in Cuba, mainly for Yoruba religions believers, is the release of two different “Letra del Año”, the “official” one, and the “non-official”…

  8. Pingback: How to Cope Like A Cuban | Here is Havana

  9. Pingback: How to Cope Like a Cuban | connergo's Blog

  10. Enjoyable and informative as usual, Conner. The twelve grapes are also found in Afro-Brazilian folklore at New Year’s, when 2 million gather on the beaches of Rio to make offerings to Yemanja, Goddess of the sea, the Yoruba Orisha found in Afro-Brazilian Candomblé, Afro-Cuban Santeria and other forms of the religion found in the Americas. So it makes me wonder if the eating of the grapes are a Yoruba custom.

    I included a reference to this in my novel, Carnival of Hope, which is set in Brazil: “At the appointed time, with no waves to break over their feet seven times, and no twelve grapes to eat and save the seeds, they walked forward, the anticipation tickling their skins.”

    George Hamilton

  11. I find other culture’s superstitions really fascinating. I was actually around Chiapas in Mexico for the week they celebrated Our Lady of Guadelupe. It’s really interesting to watch.

    And, actually, in one of my English classes we were recently doing about superstitions. We all had a laugh at those that both the UK and Mexico share such as never walking under a ladder, a black cat crossing your path, touching wood for good luck, etc. but then the mood turned serious when all of my class mentioned that they didn’t believe in those that had been mentioned but definitely DEFINITELY believed in evil spirits. And so they began telling me about the traditions of how to ward off evil spirits. Such a religious culture here.

    I’ve heard of the grapes on New Year tradition too: Though I heard that you had to put a grape in your mouth with each chime at midnight and the reason this tradition was played down was because of the amount of people who’d ended up choking while attempting to do this!

    • Jose Chivas Grande 66

      Let’s see—twelve grapes:check, burning branch of Christmas tree:check, tossing bucket of dirty water:check, I didn’t know about the suitcase or the underwear, but I love it. What about drinking Cidre?

      • Drinking cidre yes and in recent years, Ive noticed a tradition adopted form other latino cultures taking hold: burning giant homemade effigies representing the old year (the idea is you “fill” the doll with all your bad experiences, energy etc from year previous to enter new year cleansed).

  12. Angie

    A fascinating post Connor. My friend’s home has a permanent altar to the Virgine el Cobre with various effegies flowers and many glasses of water so they are firm believers in the JuJu.

    Yesterday I sent my friend a list of new year’s resolutions as if written by him, or what I expected for him in 2015 in terms of selfish his occasional obnoxious completely selfish, machista behaviour So inherent in the Cuban man that you begin to wonder if they are aware of it I explained to him that these ‘resolutions’ were how we start our new year.

    Having read your comments on JuJu and evil spirits I may well have scared him the life out of him.

    The list of ‘resolutions’ sent to him as if written by him, is really reinforcing back to him what I expect from him in terms of change, ‘signed ‘ by him. I may well have been talking to a brick wall in terms of his massive ego and arrogance.

    Whether he accepts it or not I feel it will hit home as the most honest assessment of him and his behaviour that he has ever read.

    • Oh dear. I do wish you luck with this. However, I think there are factors conspiring against you. One is machismo which is a cultural construct built on ignorance, bias, and centuries of learned behavior. Another is the fact that (many, not all, por favor) Cubans are always right, even when they’re very wrong (see my post on this hard-headeness).

      Based on this, I think you are very optimistic (“I feel it will hit home as the most honest assessment of him and his behaviour that he has ever read”) but it sounds like YOU feel better sending it and that’s what matters. Good luck and keep us posted!

    • Jose Chivas Grande 66

      Come on Angie, You can’t expect we Cuban men put our light under a bushel. We wouldn’t want to deny the rest of the world the opportunity to appreciate who we really are. And don’t fret too much if your criticism bothered your Cuban friend. If it did, I am sure he asked his mama for her thoughts and she made sure his ego was returned to its original and glorious elevation.

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