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In countries of Christian tradition, the 24th of December—Nochebuena or Christmas Eve—is associated with retirement, intimate family dinners, and Christmas carols. That was probably the case in the town of Remedios until the 1820s when the young priest Francisco Vigil de Quiñones, affectionately called Franscisquito by his congregation, came up with the idea of getting together a group of children and teenagers to make noise with horns, maracas, plowshares and tins full of rocks to waken parishioners who were seemingly reluctant to get up from their warm beds in the cold mornings of the last month of the year to attend a series of masses, which began on the 16th and ended on the 24th of December with Midnight Mass, called in Spanish-speaking countries Misa del gallo (literally, Rooster Mass).

This would be the frst step towards what would later become one of the most popular festivities in Cuba, the parrandas de Remedios. Founded in 1514 and the eighth Spanish settlement in Cuba after the discovery, Remedios is a small town in the central region of Cuba which frst received the name of Santa Cruz de la Sabana and was later called San Juan de los Remedios del Cayo by the infamous Spanish conqueror Vasco Porcallo de Figueroa, better known for his extreme cruelty and unbridled genetic impulse, believed to have procreated around one hundred children with aboriginal women.

Although in 1835 a decree was issued forbidding the noisy manifestations before 4am, the merry ‘alarm clocks’ continued going around the streets with their pandemoniac ‘orchestra’ now composed of horns, grilles, horses’ jawbones, rattles, güiros (the globe-shaped, hard-shelled fruit of a Cuban tree) and harmonicas. Around 1850, new additions included singers, guitars, mandolins, harps, congas, claves and an instrument that was used exclusively in parrandas, the ‘atambora’—a small barrel-shaped drum covered with the tanned hide of a goat. More changes were made over time leading to the celebration’s present-day musical forms: the peals, with which the ‘parranderos’ make the rounds of the town’s neighbourhoods; polkas composed more than a century ago and which are heard when the ‘trabajos de plaza’—art work exhibited in the plaza—are lit and the floats begin their parade; and the rumbas, which may be a ‘challenge rumba’ that is improvised under the lights of the frework display above, or a ‘victory rumba’ by which a neighbourhood ensures that its freworks, floats and plaza art work are the best.

During the mid 19th century, the eight neighbourhoods in which the town was divided formed two rival groups, El Carmen and San Salvador, each with its own musical clan. However, the competitive character that still survives in today’s parrandas goes back to 1871 when also large lanterns made of India paper were shown off and kite competitions were held. Four years later, chariots—considered the antecedent of today’s floats—would parade down the streets, and towers, triumphal arcs, and other ingenious handicrafts that would later become the ‘trabajos de plaza’, would be exhibited at the Plaza de Armas Isabel II, which together with the freworks have characterized this festivity since then. This popular celebration has extended to nearby cities such as Camajuaní, Vueltas, Caibarién, Guayos and Encrucijada, as well as to other towns of the North-central region of Cuba, whose Christmas celebrations have characteristics akin to those of Remedios, while researchers have found similarities with other Spanish celebrations, such as the Fallas in Valencia.

With very rare interruptions, year after year, the people from Remedios feverishly get ready to ensure a successful celebration: several months are spent in the manufacture of rockets, Roman candles, Bengal lights, pinwheels, sparklers and other freworks. Skilled craftsmen and craftswomen design and build the floats and the ‘trabajos de plaza’ based on historic, literary and mythological themes, although sometimes the works are purely abstract shapes where light and colour play a fundamental role. All this is done in strictest secrecy to be revealed only on the opening night of the parrandas. This creativity is preserved in the Museo de las Parrandas (Calle Máximo Gómez número 71, open Tuesday-Saturday, 9:00am-noon and 1:00pm-6:00pm; Sunday 9:00am-1:00pm), which frst opened its doors in 1980 becoming the frst museum in Cuba dedicated to popular art. Its collections include gadgets, documents and photographs related to the parrandas.

When at ten o’clock in the evening the church bells begin to ring announcing the start of the festivity, the night sky glows with freworks for several hours; music from different bands can be heard and danced to; the stunning plaza works are lit with oohs and ahs coming from the crowds; the floats, the result of many hours of work put in by carpenters, electricians, designers, dressmakers and dozens of workmen, begin their triumphal parade, while the carmelitas—from the Carmen neighbourhood—and the sansaríes—from San Salvador—travel down the centenary streets singing and dancing to the rhythm of the victory rumba, because in this competition, devoid of judges and juries, everyone’s a winner.

Towards morning, at the same hour when sleepy remedianos of two centuries ago were roused from their sleep to the sound of horns and grilles, the visitors, having removed the hats which are advisable to wear as a protection against the freworks, head to the small yet elegant and discreetly colonial Mascotte Hotel whose ten rooms are usually booked in advance, or to the private homes where they are staying, while the exhausted residents of El Carmen and San Salvador begin to envisage next year’s parrandas.

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