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Skyrockets at night spark holiday delight

By Patrick Oppmann, CNN
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Cuba's fireworks town
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Huge 200 year-old Christmas Eve fireworks fest ignites joy in Remedios, Cuba
  • Originally, event attracted worshippers, but now church closes for safety
  • "We're afraid that rockets will fly into the church and kill someone."
  • Someone gets burned every year, say locals, but there are few serious injuries

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

As the story goes, Father Vigil was annoyed that so few of his parishioners were attending his church's Christmas Eve midnight Mass.

So the Catholic priest had an idea. He employed a few of the town's children to create a ruckus that would get people out of bed and into the pews.

They threw rocks, beat sticks and awoke the town, prompting them to fill the church.

Two centuries later, on Christmas Eve 2010, the ruckus remains, but the worshippers have disappeared. The town's current priest, Father Agustin Ibarra Diaz, stood overlooking the same house of worship -- gazing at a sanctuary completely empty of parishioners. Outside the colonial-era church, salsa music blared.

The actions of his predecessor have had disastrous results for Ibarra. The type of pre-midnight Mass disturbances evolved over the centuries. Brass instruments were played. Large colorful floats with flashing lights were built. And then, of course, there were the fireworks.

It's the fireworks that have Ibarra worried. And they are 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 most smoke possible. They don't always fly straight up.

"Its tough to be a priest and give Mass when there are rockets going off. People can't really enjoy the Eucharist, the birth of Jesus," Ibarra said, regret in his voice. "We're afraid that rockets will fly into the church and kill someone."

Ibarra said he appreciates the effort that goes into the celebration and festivities. But this year, for safety reasons, he decided to cancel the Mass.

A float with an arctic theme includes carved penguins standing in fake snow.
A float with an arctic theme includes carved penguins standing in fake snow.

If Remedios misses the evening services, it doesn't show. Outside the church, the town's small plaza is nearly full of residents and visitors.

At each corner of the town square, a large float 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 at nightfall.

Dotting the square are food stands offering lechon, slow-cooked whole pig, its skin crunchy and colored a deep amber from hours over the coals. For less than a U.S. dollar, vendors will carve off a few slices of the meat.

Although it's still early, the square's one bar is close to being sold out of Havana Club rum.

We've been doing this for generations and generations. My dad did it; my son does; everyone does.
--Pablo Torres

About 5 p.m., the first fireworks are being set up, and eagerness is growing for the party to begin. The pyrotechnics are the work of so-called artilleros, or artillery men.

"We've been doing this for generations and generations," artillero Pablo Torres said. "My dad did it; my son does; everyone does."

Wearing a bright orange construction helmet, Torres said he's not afraid of getting hurt by the explosives. He offers a bottle of yellow liquid: "Drink some rum, and you will be all set."

The first barrage of fireworks shakes the town. Thousands of skyrockets scream into the sky, which is soon dark from smoke. The explosives called palomas, or doves, fly up with a stream of sparks. The artilleros fill lead pipes with homemade bombs that then blast forth.

Some of the firework specialists use Cuban cigars to ignite the fireworks. For safety, many of them wear thick olive-green canvas shirts and small straw hats that are usually the uniform of sugar cane cutters. Others wear only T-shirts and shorts while they play with fire.

The fireworks shoot off in every direction, and flaming shrapnel comes falling back down to the square.

You see that people are not from here because they cover their nose. We don't. We love this.
--Andres Carrillo
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Someone ends up getting burned every year, say the locals, but there are few serious injuries. The only death anyone can remember was a woman killed years ago after an errant rocket flew into 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.

While the entire country faces crippling shortages and economic challenges, Remedios still cobbles together everything it needs for the big spectacle.

The parrandas bring in tourists despite the fact that the town has only one 10-room hotel.

Andres Carrillo has come home to Remedios from New Jersey. His mother is renting out every bedroom in her house to foreign tourists. Carrillo said the festivals may bring in badly needed funds, but they are still put on to honor tradition.

"We are addicted to the fire and the smoke," Carrillo said while dodging a rocket. "You see that people are not from here because they cover their nose. We don't. We love this."