From Puerto Rico to Ukraine: How NKY’s melting pot celebrates the New Year

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This story originally appeared in the Dec. 23 edition of the weekly LINK Reader. To get these stories first, subscribe here.

When the clock strikes midnight on New Year’s Eve, people around the world will celebrate a brand new year — but in somewhat unusual ways. 

Americans raise a champagne toast and some may wake up on Jan. 1 with a headache, and traditionally break new year’s resolutions. However, other cultures might eat 12 grapes in the 12 seconds that lead up to midnight, or throw a pot of water out of the window to symbolize getting rid of bad spirits, or acknowledge the holiday later in January (Lunar New Year), or March (Nowruz, Persian New Year), or September (Rosh Hashanah). 

LINK nky found folks who have migrated to Northern Kentucky to hear their cultural New Year traditions, how they will be celebrating this year, and how these traditions help them cope with homesickness.

Krizia Cabrera-Toro, who is half Dominican and half Puerto Rican, grew up in Toa Baja, Puerto Rico, and came to the states 12 years ago for college. Eight years ago she settled in the area and currently works in Florence as the diversity, equity, and inclusion regional manager for Bluegrass Care Navigators, a hospice and palliative care non-profit. 

“When you grow up somewhere else, you have so many things tied to your identity that there are times you miss those more than anything else,” she said. “Even though I might be in Northern Kentucky working and helping the community, I still miss home because there’s so much tied to who I am—my family, the traditions, the culture. It helped me become who I am today.”

Krizia L. Toro with gifts for the Three Kings Day celebrated on Jan. 6.  Photo by Joe Simon | LINK nky contributor. 

Because of a more than 10-hour travel day, Cabrera-Toro rarely gets back to Puerto Rico, but her mom is visiting her in Kentucky for the holidays.

“I live in an area where there aren’t a lot of people that look like me or share the same traditions as me,” she said, “so you get homesick. I am lucky that I could do it with my husband because he’s also Puerto Rican, so he understands where we’re coming from. My way of connecting with people back home is doing the things that they’re doing.”

Because Puerto Rico is one hour ahead of Kentucky, she and her family will welcome the new year at 11 p.m. Eastern Time. Many Puerto Rican families celebrate Christmas, and on Jan. 6, they acknowledge the religious holiday Los Reyes Magos, or Three Kings Day. 

On the eve of Los Reyes Magos, kids fill a shoebox with grass and either put it under their bed or under the Christmas tree. Akin to leaving cookies and carrots for Santa and his reindeer, the grass is left for the wise men’s camels to graze on. 

Nativity Scene with Los Tres Reyes Magos.  Photo by Joe Simon | LINK nky contributor

“Obviously, the camels are your parents,” she said. “But it’s just this cute tradition of keeping the innocence alive.” 

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As a child, Cabrera-Toro received shoes (naturally) and even one year a bike (it didn’t fit under the bed). Even adults can receive gifts. She also collects nativity scene figures, like baby Jesus wrapped in a plantain leaf.

Puerto Ricans, like the Spaniards, consume 12 grapes by midnight to signify prosperity for the year ahead. 

“We just want to honor who our ancestors were,” she said. “Even if they’re small traditions, even if they are superstitious traditions, I feel like I honor my grandma when I’m eating those grapes.” Everyone gets dressed up, even if they’re sitting at home all night. “It’s just our way of putting the best foot forward.”

Another tradition she remembers celebrating is her grandma and mom throwing a pot of water out in the streets. 

“That would mean that she was letting go of everything that was bad and all the bad spirits,” she said. “Those were things that were passed down from generation to generation of how to bring wealth, prosperity, and better luck or success into the next year.”

Not only do grapes play a role in the new year, but so do foods like arroz con gandules (rice with pigeon peas), potato salad, pasteles (root vegetables mixed with pork or chicken and wrapped in a plantain leaf), a whole roasted pig, pork shoulder (for a smaller gathering), flan, tembleque (coconut dessert pudding), and coquito (a rum-based or virgin coconut drink; see recipe below). 

Krizia’s coquitio recipe:
3 cans of cream of coconut
3 cans of evaporated milk
2 cans of condensed milk
Cinnamon to taste
1 tablespoon or less of vanilla 
2 cups of white rum (for those who drink and adults) to start, but I would add more or less based on preference
Mix in a blender. Refrigerate overnight.

“The coquito, the pork shoulder—doing all those things reminds me of home,” Cabrera-Toro said. “The smells that I get in my kitchen, the time I get to spend with my friends and family here—even though they’re not my family, they become my family and I can share who we are with them. It’s bittersweet.” 

Beth Williams is the regional advisor in the Hoosier Hills region with International Student Exchange (ISE). She hosts, places, and supervises high school exchange students from a myriad of countries. Williams said she engages with some of the students’ traditions, like eating grapes at midnight and drinking the German glühwein (mulled wine). 

“These small gestures not only allow us to learn and participate in their culture, but it gives them a taste of home since they are so far away,” Williams said. “It helps them feel less homesick during the holidays. My students also really enjoy sending American gifts to their family, and last year my students mailed a lot of Sour Patch Kids to their siblings back home.” 

This year she’s hosting Emma Laurenti, a student from Milan, Italy, who’s a senior at Bellevue High School. 

“Usually kids spend New Year’s Eve with their family, having a big dinner together with lentils: auspicious as a wish for luck and prosperity for the New Year,” Laurenti said. “Then, we usually spend time playing a board game similar to Bingo called Tombola, and after that, kids usually celebrate at midnight with some friends watching fireworks.” 

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This holiday, Laurenti said she’ll celebrate with her host family and friends by banging on pots outside the house, and wishing her neighbors a Happy New Year.

“Despite being so far from home, continuing New Year traditions may help me feel less homesick, but it would also be good to be welcoming to new traditions, too.” 

One new tradition will be cooking sauerkraut—a good luck German food—with her host family. 

“My hopes and goals for 2023 are to have fun, learn more about a new culture, improve my English, and become a better version of myself,” she said. 

María Luz Cortés Pajares hails from Madrid and attends Scott High School; this will be her first holiday in the States. 

“On New Year’s Eve, in Spain, I meet with my dad’s family and have a very big dinner,” she said. “We all dress up, and the women usually wear black. After dinner, which usually is at 9:30 p.m. or 10 p.m., we put the national TV channel on and wait until we can eat our grapes. After we do that, my older cousins usually go partying and the rest of us stay until 1 a.m. or 2 a.m., and then we finally go home.”  

In terms of dinner, they eat appetizers like foie gras, canapés, caviar, mushrooms, cured ham, and olives. For entrees, they’ll have smoked salmon, consomé soup, her aunt’s salad (mango, lettuce, prawn, and lime juice), and for dessert, they have traditional Spanish sweets, such as turrones (a type of nougat), mazapanes (marzipan), polvorones (Spanish shortbread), and lemon mousse that her aunt makes.

“This year, I’m not sure whether I’ll celebrate the New Year with my best friend’s family, or I will go to a party with some friends,” she said. “But I’ve been told it’s not given as much importance as it’s given in my country. I’ll probably call my parents back in Spain to wish them a Happy New Year. I’m honestly having such a good time here that I don’t want to go home, and I don’t really miss my family.”

In April, Thailand celebrates the Songkran festival, their version of the New Year in which participants splash water on one another. They also acknowledge Jan. 1 as New Year’s Day. Noey Emarat, a junior at Newport Central Catholic High School, is from Bangkok. 

“We have a celebration, as well, but it’s a little different, such as meeting relatives and exchanging gifts from friends,” she said. “I may be celebrating with my foster family, but I may have Face Time with my family in Thailand.” 

As for New Year’s resolutions, she said, “most Thai people will determine that there are only good things coming in for your family to be healthy. Living here is very worthwhile. I want to gain as much experience as possible.”

While the Russian-Ukraine war continues, Crescent Hills resident and Ukrainian native Nataliya Kravchenko recently founded the charity USA with Ukraine as a way to send humanitarian aid to her home country. 

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Nataliya Kravchenko, right, and her mother, Olena Havryliuk, hug in front of their Christmas tree. Photo by Joe Simon | LINK nky contributor

She’s collecting power banks and pajamas and sending them to first responders. Kravchenko moved to Kentucky in 2012. She grew up in Vinnytsia, Ukraine, but also lived and studied in Kyiv. Because of the war, Ukraine won’t be able to celebrate the holidays like they have in the past. In fact, the annual Kharkiv Christmas/New Year’s tree currently sits in the metro station, not Freedom Square, due to safety concerns. 

“It’s going to be very sad,” she said. “Children usually go from house-to-house or to apartments singing Christmas carols, but that’s not going to happen.” 

Many Northern Kentucky-based Ukrainian refugees will be spending their first holidays in America. 

“It’s going to be an adjustment, but it’s going to be a learning curve for both Americans and Ukrainians,” Kravchenko said. 

For the uninitiated, Ukraine’s holidays are a little confusing — and long. 

The season kicks off on Dec. 19 with Saint Nicholas Day. 

“Saint Nicholas brings the candy to the children and puts them under the pillow,” Kravchenko said. 

Depending if Ukrainians are Catholic or Orthodox, they might celebrate on different days. 

Catholics acknowledge the 25th as Christmas Day. However, Orthodox Christmas occurs on Jan. 7. On New Year’s Eve, Ukrainians listen to a presidential address, and they shoot off fireworks. Malanka, the old New Year (the Julian calendar), is observed on Jan. 13 to 14, with teenage girls caroling after sunset. 

“Ukrainian families gather between the Christmas and New Year, just get together and have the traditional food and drink Champagne,” she said. “They have big feasts, basically making salads. And by the salad, I’m not talking about lettuce leaves.” 

She’s referring to multi-ingredient salads like potato salad. They also eat kutia, a dish made from wheat grains, poppy seeds, honey, walnuts, and raisins. Speaking of champagne, at midnight Ukrainians have a unique ritual: They write down a wish on a piece of paper, set the paper ablaze, put the ashes in the champagne, and drink it. 

“Just don’t make your wish very long,” she joked. “You don’t want to have all of this in your system.”

Looking ahead to the New Year, Kravchenko has a big aspiration. 

“My hopes and wishes are that the whole world needs to unite and stop all of this because it’s everybody’s war,” she said. “If people don’t realize this, it’s going to be too late. They need to defeat Russia because Russia will not stop. I have hopes that the Ukrainian people will go back to their homes, and Ukraine will be back to normal. But we will have to face the consequences of this war. That’s why I have the charity — because no help is too small, and freedom is very fragile.”

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