Two of the most universal Cuban traditions frame the stroke of New Year's midnight in our households in exile and on the island.
Though a table set out with foods of the season - turron in all its varieties, from the hard nougat of an alicante to the soft creaminess of a yema, datiles, avellanas - is a must, the most essential food is the bunches of grapes on a platter. Earlier in the evening, the grapes are artfully separated into miniature clusters of twelve. As midnight approached in my grandmother's house in la Habana Vieja, we would each pick our bunch and hold it close as we listened to the countdown on the radio and then heard the bells of the cathedral. You were supposed to eat one grape for each toll of the bell. I remember the sweet and extravagant luxury of the grape juice flowing out the corners of my overstuffed young mouth as i tried to follow the custom perhaps too literally.
Shortly after midnight, everybody would rush for the kitchen, grab a pot filled with water, and run to throw it over the balcony down to the street a floor below. The water takes all the evil out of the house so we start the year with tabula rasa. For the drunken adults, and specially for the children up way past their bedtime, it was great sport to try to hit the unfortunates caught out on the street, running from the shelter of one balcony to the next, slipping and sliding on the already drenched sidewalks.
The rituals that exert true power and define national character often carry deeper meanings, like the throwing of the water is a pale echo from a Santeria despojo. But you don't need to believe or even have the cultural connection for there to be magic in the ritual, as attested by the ever growing concentric circles of friends of every background that are now compelled to eat the grapes and throw the water every New Year's eve.