Flares at night spark vacation fun

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HISTORY HIGHLIGHTS

  • Huge 200-year-old Christmas Eve fireworks party ignites joy in Remedios, Cuba
  • Originally the event attracted worshipers, but now the church closes for security reasons
  • “We are afraid that rockets will fly into the church and kill someone.”
  • Someone gets burned every year, say locals, but few seriously injured

Remedios, Cuba (CNN) – For 200 years, the inhabitants of Remedios, a small town in the Cuban countryside, have shared the legendary story of Father Francisco Vigil de Quiñones.

According to the story, Father Vigil was annoyed that so few of his parishioners attended his church’s Christmas Eve midnight mass on Christmas Eve.

So the Catholic priest had an idea. He employed some of the kids in town to create a ruckus that would get people out of bed and up onto the benches.

They threw stones, beat sticks and woke up the city, prompting them to fill the church.

Two centuries later, on Christmas Eve 2010, the heckling remains, but the faithful have disappeared. The current city priest, Father Agustin Ibarra Diaz, overlooked the same place of worship, gazing at a shrine completely empty of parishioners. Outside the colonial-era church, salsa music was blaring.

The actions of his predecessor had disastrous results for Ibarra. The type of mass disturbance before midnight has evolved over the centuries. Brass instruments were played. Large colored floats with flashing lights were built. And then, of course, there was the fireworks display.

It is the fireworks that worries Ibarra. And it’s not just any pyrotechnic rockets, but a homemade strain – with names like morteros, voladores, and palomas – designed to create the biggest bangs and brightest flashes and the most smoke possible. They don’t always fly straight.

“It is hard to be a priest and to give mass when there are rockets going off. People cannot really enjoy the Eucharist, the birth of Jesus”, said Ibarra, regret in the voice. “We are afraid that rockets will fly into the church and kill someone.”

Ibarra said he appreciated the effort put into the celebration and the festivities. But this year, for security reasons, he decided to cancel the mass.

An arctic-themed float features sculpted penguins standing in fake snow.

An arctic-themed float features sculpted penguins standing in fake snow.

If Remedios misses evening services, it doesn’t show. Outside the church, the small town square is almost full of locals and visitors.

At each corner of the town square, a large chariot rises three stories into the air.

One float has an arctic theme, with carved wolves and penguins standing in fake snow. Thousands of colored lights dot the float and illuminate the square as night falls.

Dotting the square are food stalls offering lechon, whole pork simmered, its crispy skin colored with a deep amber for hours on the embers. For less than a US dollar, the vendors will cut up a few slices of meat.

Although it’s still early days, the only bar in the square is about to run out of Havana Club rum.

We have been doing this for generations and generations. My father did it; my son does; everyone does it.

–Pablo Torres

Around 5 p.m., the first fireworks are set up, and impatience grows for the party to begin. Pyrotechnics is the work of so-called artillerymen, or artillerymen.

“We’ve been doing this for generations and generations,” said Gunner Pablo Torres. “My dad did it; my son does it; everyone does it.”

Wearing a bright orange hard hat, Torres said he was not afraid of being injured by the explosives. He offers a bottle of yellow liquid: “Drink some rum, and everything will be ready.”

The first fireworks shake the city. Thousands of rockets light up the sky, which soon darkens with smoke. Explosives called palomas, or doves, fly away with a flood of sparks. The artillerymen fill the lead pipes with homemade bombs which then explode.

Some of the fireworks specialists use Cuban cigars to light the fireworks. For safety, many of them wear heavy, olive-green canvas shirts and small straw hats which are usually the uniform of cane cutters. Others only wear T-shirts and shorts when playing with fire.

Fireworks burst in all directions and bursts of flaming shells descended on the square.

You see people are not from here because they cover their noses. We don’t. We like it.
–Andres Carrillo

Someone gets burned every year, residents say, but there are few serious injuries. The only death that can be remembered is that of a woman who was killed years ago after a stray rocket landed in a building where gunpowder was stored.

That there are no worse injuries amid the hours of explosions seems miraculous. But so are the festivals themselves.

As the entire country faces crippling shortages and economic challenges, Remedios is still cooking up whatever it needs for the big show.

Parrandas attract tourists despite the fact that the city has only one hotel with 10 rooms.

Andres Carrillo returned to Remedios from New Jersey. Her mother rents every room in her house to foreign tourists. Carrillo said the festivals could raise much-needed funds, but they are still set up to honor the tradition.

“We’re addicted to fire and smoke,” Carrillo said, dodging a rocket. “You see people aren’t from here because they cover their noses. We don’t. We like it.”



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