Of the 2.6 million people living in Miami-Dade County, residents hail from all over the world, from Cuba to Lebanon.* With such a diverse community, the winter holidays inevitably take many forms.
From latkes to lechón, food seems to play a pivotal role in any celebration. “At their most obvious, feasts … celebrate or commemorate special events,” writes University of Connecticut anthropologist Natalie Munro in The Anthropology of Feasting. “Feasts, however, also play much more subtle social roles. In particular, they serve as the social glue that holds communities together by smoothing tensions, forging alliances, creating shared memories, and exchanging information.” Dining together is one of the many rituals families engage in, especially during the holidays.
As a key component of culture, rituals can bring us together across differences — often sharing plenty of similarities. For example, a common tradition for many people from Spain and South America is las doce uvas de la suerte — the 12 grapes of luck. This centuries old tradition originated in Spain, with the 12 grapes representing the 12 months of the year. The goal is to eat all 12 grapes before the bells signifying the New Year begin ringing, promising good luck in the year to come.
Throughout the winter holidays in South Florida, people can be found cooking jerk chicken and pumpkin soup, eating grapes and baking cakes. We asked locals from a wide variety of cultural backgrounds how they celebrate their winter holidays, from Hanukkah to New Years. Here are some of the ways Miami celebrates.
Christmas Eve is our main day, and it is called noche buena, which means good night. We all go to my Grandmother’s house and have a traditional meal, consisting of lechón pork, black beans, rice, sweet plantains, yuca, and a salad of avocado and tomatoes. We also eat buñuelos, which is a yuca donut. We have a Christmas tree and we listen to music like Andrea Bocelli Christmas music and of course “Feliz Navidad.” We make coquito, which is like a Caribbean drink. It is basically a Latin eggnog made with coconut, condensed milk, and rum.
On Christmas day, my family comes over and we eat leftovers, make pig sandwiches on Cuban bread and just watch TV and relax. During New Year’s Eve, we have a big family party. We drink and stay up with family members all night. We roast a 60-pound pig, which is something most Cuban families do for big celebrations. We also eat 12 grapes with champagne.
Our big celebration is on Christmas Day. My whole family eats together, and we have rice, chicken, and plantains. We always call our relatives and say Merry Christmas. We don’t really recognize Santa Claus, and most Haitians don’t. It’s not a huge celebration for us.
New Year’s Eve is way cooler — like every family, we watch the ball drop. We all have to be together, and we pour champagne and say a small prayer for each other. The next day, on Jan. 1, every Haitian family will make soup joumou, a spicy pumpkin and beef soup. It is an important day for us, because Jan. 1, 1803, Haiti got independence from France. My mom makes a huge bowl of soup, we have bread, and around 3 p.m., we say a prayer and eat together. That’s probably the most important holiday for my family.
Jewish people in Cuba celebrate Hanukkah the same way other Jewish people do around the world. I came to Miami when I was very young, but my parents lived in Cuba for quite a few years. My kids are older now, but when they were little we would get the whole family together, there were 11 cousins altogether and we would meet in our house have a big Hanukkah party. We’d light the menorah and sing Hanukkah songs like “Light the Menorah” and “Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel.”
Then we would have a gift exchange where the kids would sit on the floor and open presents. We’d have a big meal with latkes, which are a traditional potato pancake; a brisket; and lots of sweets, like glazed carrots, donuts, and traditional cookies. The kids would play with a dreidel, which is a toy that has different sides with different Hebrew letters on each side. Depending on the letter it lands on, you can win gelt, which is like money. We would buy gold chocolate coins for the kids to use.
During Christmas, we go to our families’ homes who celebrate it and celebrate with them. They have a Christmas tree and we participate in their traditions as well, and we’ll have a traditional Christmas meal with turkey at the center. The kids got the best of both worlds — they were really happy to have both Hanukkah and Christmas presents.
On New Year’s Eve, we always eat 12 grapes with my parents. The Jewish new year is called rosh hashanah and it happens earlier in the year. For this, we go to temple and pray to the book of life so that you can have another year of life.
On Christmas Eve, we do a big dinner and play music. We usually eat pernil, which is pork and arroz con gandules, which is rice with peas. We also eat potato salad and other assorted salads. For dessert, we usually have flan. The tradition is that we open presents at midnight because that’s when Jesus was born.
On New Year’s Eve, we have a big party and with similar foods as Christmas. We eat 12 grapes along with the countdown of the ball drop. During both holidays, there’s always a lot of dancing. We dance salsa, merengue, and bachata. The Dominican side usually dances more than my Ecuadorian side, haha. We like to play Anthony Santos, Raulin Rodriguez, Grupo, Mania, and Romero to dance to.
For Christmas, the joke is that Jewish people eat Chinese food because that’s the only thing open on Christmas Eve. So that’s what we do — we eat Chinese food and rent a movie on Christmas Eve. On New Year’s Eve, we just go out and drink alcohol.
We have a big family get together and have a very large feast. It’s not so different from Western culture, really. For dinner, we eat a traditional ham and turkey, but we also have a white garlic sauce called toum, and hummus, with pita bread surrounding it. We also have kibbeh, which is a ball of wheat filled with beef or lamb, spices, olive oil, and onions, and cousa mashi, which is a squash hollowed out and filled with rice, meat, a tomato sauce bath, and garlic. For New Year’s Eve, we just drink alcohol and watch the ball drop.
We don’t do anything on Christmas day. Christmas Eve is when we celebrate. My mom starts cooking dinner at 1 p.m. She makes a gallina de relleno, which is a chicken stuffed with a green bean stew. But our meal is also blended with American culture — we have macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes and relleno, which is like a wet stuffing made of tomatoes, bacon, pork, pieces of chicken, and corn. We do our big celebration at night, called noche buena. We eat dinner at 9 p.m., and say a prayer to praise the fact that Jesus was born. We open our gifts at night.
In Nicaragua, New Year’s Eve is very festive. We build an effigy of an old man made out of old clothes, and we call him el hombre viejo. It is supposed to represent the old year. At midnight, we burn it and say a prayer. We also have other traditions like we eat 12 grapes with champagne. Even the kids get champagne. Then we drink and party late into the night.
On Christmas Eve, we don’t really do anything. It’s just a regular day. But Christmas Day is a different story. We wake up and, of course, open presents. Then we have a big meal. The main difference between a regular American Christmas and a Jamaican Christmas is the food. Our meal is made up of turkey, jerk chicken, rice and peas, potato salad, and mashed potatoes. We also make a drink called sorrel, which is a tea made by brewing hibiscus flowers, ginger, and port wine. Christmas cake is also a big thing in Jamaica. We make like 10 different cakes, and the most important is a Jamaican black cake, which is made with rum, butter, flour, brown sugar, and cinnamon. For New Year’s Eve we also have a big dinner with champagne and fireworks, and we watch the ball drop.
We typically celebrate Christmas Eve more than Christmas day. So on Christmas Eve, we eat hallacas, which are tamales with pork, chicken, olive oil, olives, and garbanzo beans. We only make those for Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve. We also bake bread with ham inside of it. We make a drink called ponche crema, made with milk, eggs, sugar, and rum, which is like a Venezuelan eggnog. We have a particular type of music only played during Christmas time called gaitas, and it puts people in a celebratory mood. Most Venezuelan families don’t celebrate Santa Claus — we usually celebrate Baby Jesus and that’s who brings the presents.
On New Year’s Eve, we have a huge party and celebrate all night. There’s a bunch of good luck traditions we do. We usually eat 12 grapes with champagne, one for every month of the year. We also have to run around the block of our neighborhood with a suitcase so that we can have a year with a lot of travel. Then, on New Year’s Day, we make and eat sancocho, which is like a chicken noodle soup.
We don’t do much on Christmas Eve, but on Christmas morning, we go to church and have a big breakfast with Trinidadian/Indian food like roti, callaloo, curry chicken, curry goat, and a big honey-baked ham. We listen to traditional American Christmas music, but there are also reggae versions of traditional songs. And of course, we open presents.
In Trinidad we call New Year’s Eve “Old Year’s,” because you’re celebrating the old year — the New Year’s Day isn’t here yet! We drink alcohol, dance, and play a lot of card games. Bailey’s is a really popular holiday drink in the Caribbean.
What’s cool in Trinidad is that there’s a mix of Hindus, Muslims, and Christians, so when I’m there, Hindus and Muslims also celebrate Christmas, and we would also celebrate Diwali and Eid with them. Here, we don’t really celebrate other holidays as much. There, everyone just celebrates everything because it’s ingrained in the culture.
How do you celebrate the holidays?
*A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the number of Miami-Dade residents from select geographic regions.