Designers, carpenters, electricians, painters, seamstresses, plus dozens of volunteers join forces and, at the first light of day, their work begins to take shape
Father Francisco Vigil de Quiñones, aka Francisquito, initiator of the festivities, was concerned—deeply concerned. The Nativity of the Child Jesus was just around the corner and with it Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. The chilly mornings saw few parishioners go to church and the collection was negligible. Something had to be done.
That morning, a group of children who were rolling hoops on the dusty street and making an infernal racket with old pots and pans passed by San Salvador de Horta Church, the humble chapel made of planks and dry leafs where the priest officiated. The boisterous kids had given him an idea: They would become his alarm clocks!
The initiative started to spread throughout Remedios, and in 1871 two Spaniards gave the Parrandas the character they still have. The city was divided into two “rival” neighborhoods: San Salvador and El Carmen.
It’s four o’clock in the morning of December 24 and there’s a coming and going of furtive shadows in the streets. After months of working in secret on their chosen theme, creating the designs of the light displays for the square, the floats, the costumes, the comparsas, preparing the fireworks, the time has come to put all the parts together, give life to imagination and exhibit the result of painstaking work.
Designers, carpenters, electricians, painters, seamstresses, plus dozens of volunteers join forces and, at the first light of day, their work begins to take shape. Two cranes carry the enormous yet delicate pieces of floats and the light structures for the square. The themes chosen by each neighborhood are clearly visible to locals and visitors alike: The Chronicles of Narnia by El Carmen and the religiosity of Christmas by San Salvador.
Early that day, while their fellow neighbors are engaged in putting together what they have worked so hard at for the one single day, the comparsas invade the park. The dancers sway to the beating of drums and the sound of trumpets, to polkas and rumbas. Some people wave flags and banners, others twirl their farolas, accessories resembling streetlamps, all featuring the colors and symbols of their clan.
In the afternoon, the floats get the final touches, the lights on the structures on display at the square are tested and a small army of volunteers distribute rockets and mortar-like contraptions known as morteros around the park.
In a flash, the sky is covered with colored lights, fire and smoke. Amid the barrage of “projectiles,” die-hard “soldiers” eager to win the “combat” calmly and stylishly light by hand the rockets that did not go off, and you get to behold the beauty of the launching and the trajectory of the projectile and its trail of fire. Throughout the night, until dawn, the two contenders take turns deploying their arsenal.
There is a pause at midnight for Midnight Mass. The cathedral overflows with believers and onlookers alike who listen to the message of peace and brotherhood.
Thousands of people occupy every available space in the park
and the surrounding streets, while, dressed in colorful costumes,
the characters of the theme chosen by each side take their
places on the floats to start the parade. Calling it a parade,
however, is an overstatement: they only move a hundred meters
before taking a turn at the corner and positioning themselves
between the two lighting structures at the square for the faceoff.
Comparsas, flags, banners and farolas take the lead, while
morteros and fireworks sprouting from pinwheel-like artefacts
and devices situated across the street compete with the rockets
in their aim to light the night sky.
At dawn, a final barrage of fireworks announces the end of the
day. The legion of exhilarated yet weary revelers slowly retire
commenting on the highlights of the night. Each neighborhood
declares itself the winner and a few days later they carry coffins
down the streets with the “corpse” of the opponent.
Celebrated by neighborhoods of eighteen towns in Villa Clara, Sancti Spíritus and Ciego de Ávila provinces, the Parrandas, a mixture of age-old and contemporary knowledge that will soon be 200 years old, were inscribed in November 2018 on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. As pointed out by the president of the National Council for Cultural Heritage Gladys Collazo Usallán when receiving this recognition, it is “a deeply popular festivity” in which “every contributor becomes an artist, a creator of design, of architecture, of music, of dance, a builder of replicas of monuments and a designer of costumes for the characters represented on the floats.”
Only a few days have passed and the directors of the two neighborhoods are meeting to assess the last festivity and begin planning next year’s Parranda. ▪