What we stuff our suitcases with, when we're returning to Cuba from the United States.
From all the festive displays in our neighborhood, it's hard to believe that Christmas was once banned in Cuba. Between the late 1960s until the late 1990s, displays of the holiday in public and even in homes were banned. Cubans were afraid of putting up Christmas trees in their living rooms. Now, our neighbors are taking their artificial evergreens out of their closets and dusting them off. Businesses and churches are putting up blinking lights and inflatable Santas with gusto. Below are some of my favorite photos of the season:
This Catholic church near our home is one of the biggest in town. One weekend morning, my family and I walked through to see a worker putting up Christmas decorations above the altar. Cuba is one of the least Catholic countries in Latin America, because of Communism and Fidel Castro's policies. After many decades of not being allowed to worship openly without being persecuted, Catholics are growing slightly in numbers these days, and many Cubans -- religious are not -- are beginning to celebrate Christmas.
We got into the spirit of a Cuban Christmas by wrapping one of our bigger gifts to the kids (a toy horse stable) with Granma, the one daily newspaper we get in Cuba. Wrapping paper is in short supply, and the newspaper worked well, even if there were few, if any, mentions of Christmas in this ad-free, Communist newspaper this month.
A neighbor displays a nativity scene below her Christmas tree. She recalls the days when she and her family were not able to celebrate Christmas openly. When she was young, she remembers finding a Christmas tree hidden away in the closet at her grandmother's house. Though her grandmother had become the head of the neighborhood watch group and had to pledge her allegiance to Communism, she couldn't bring herself to get ride of her tree.
This was one of the few homes in our neighborhood that was lighted up during the season. Part of the reason that few homes go through the effort is practical; while housing is often free in Cuba, electricity is not.
One of the things you can always find in Cuba is pork; this pork seller has been extremely busy over the last few weeks, with Cubans getting ready to prepare meals for both La Noche Buena (Christmas Eve) and New Year's Eve, the two biggest holidays of the year.
"There is charcoal" reads the sign at the local farmers' market, a reminder that the holidays are around the corner. (Normally, there isn't charcoal.)
“I love the flavor of arroz con leche!” I often hear my daughter shout from our kitchen, after she’s gotten home from school. In Cuba, it has become a regular afternoon snack, especially after I learned how easy it is to make. It utilizes one of the few canned goods that we can reliably find in Cuba, sweetened condensed milk, and a few other basic items that we always have in stock.
What I also like about arroz con leche is that it’s so international. I first fell in love with rice pudding in Copenhagen, where my husband and I once spent a holiday season with our friends Hannah and Carsten. Danish people are some of the nicest (and happiest) people in the world, and they have some amazing culinary traditions. Hannah and Carsten invited us to stay in their home one December, after hearing that we were coming to town, so my husband could attend a climate change conference. Over the week, we ate some of the best food we’d ever tasted: delicious smoked herring, nouveau Scandinavian dishes with Italian influences like pastas and risottos, and of course, loads and loads of Danish pastries laden with fruit preserves and various nuts. One of the nights before we left, Hannah and Carsten had a party in their home. Aside from a huge, literal smorgasbord of sandwiches they also served a traditional Christmas rice pudding that came with a game. They placed an almond in the pudding and doled out the dessert into various dishes. The person who ended up with the almond won a small treat. I can’t remember what the treat was, but I am sure it was delicious.
Cubans also serve rice pudding for the holidays. I’m planning on sneaking an almond into our pudding the night before Christmas so our kids can play the hunting-for-the-almond game too. If you’re scrambling for a last minute dessert option, there’s no need to look any further. It will only take about half an hour of active time — plus the time it will take for your kids to find the hidden almond.
Cuban-Danish Arroz con Leche
1/2 cup white rice
5 cups water
2 good-quality cinnamon sticks
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 14oz. can sweetened condensed milk
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
1 whole almond
Boil the rice with the water, cinnamon sticks, and salt in a large stockpot. When it begins to boil, add the condensed milk and stir. Reduce the heat to medium and boil for another 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Before removing the pudding from heat, drop one whole almond into the mixture and stir until it is no longer on the surface. Allow it to cool at room temperature for 30 minutes before serving it with a sprinkle of ground cinnamon.