In Cuba, Christmas makes cautious return
Island gets festive spirit as a result of reforms to Marxist state.
By Nick Miroff
Published: December 25, 2009 09:35 ET
HAVANA, Cuba — It's been more than a decade since Christmas was restored
to national holiday status on this communist-run island, but don't
confuse the kindly old man with the bushy white beard on government
billboards for the jolly fellow in the flying sleigh.
That's Karl Marx up there, not Kris Kringle.
And yet, ever since the late Pope John Paul II made a historic trip to
Cuba in 1998, Christmas has been gradually returning as a public
holiday. There are no fake Santas at the state-run shopping centers or
carolers in the streets, but the island seems to embrace La Navidad more
and more openly each year. Government stores now stock plastic Christmas
trees and gaudy ornaments, and Christmas lights can be seen twinkling in
scattered Cuban homes and apartment buildings.
"We're going to have a big celebration this year," said Guillermo
Rodriguez, standing outside a department store in Havana's Miramar
neighborhood with his twin brother, Ruben. Rodriguez lives in Spain, but
traveled back to the island to spend the holidays with his family.
"We love Christmas," his brother Ruben said.
For a country whose holiday calendar is otherwise dominated by the
Castro government's political and historical commemorations, the
celebration of Christmas is still an evolving process, wrapped in all
the economic contradictions and religious accommodations of contemporary
As relations between the government and the island's church leaders
improve, the tradition has even earned a small space in Cuba's
state-controlled media. For the second year in a row, government-run
television has broadcast a tape of a Christmas celebration at Cuba's
National Cathedral, including a message from Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the
island's highest-ranking Catholic official.
Ortega spoke directly to Cuba's "divided families," and praised new
Obama administration policies that have lifted travel and financial
restrictions for Cubans living in the U.S. who have relatives on the island.
"Families are happy this year to be able to welcome relatives from the
United States who wanted to visit them but could not," Ortega said. "For
that we thank God."
Prior to the Cuban Revolution, the Christmas holiday was widely observed
on the island, reflecting both Spanish traditions and American cultural
influences. But Cuban authorities cancelled Christmas celebrations in
1969, saying they interfered with the country's sugar harvest. While
many Cubans continued to celebrate the holiday in private, public
displays were discouraged.
Much of Cuba's holiday enthusiasm was redirected to New Year's Eve, as
that date became a kind of secular alternative to Dec. 25. Cuba
celebrates Jan. 1 as the anniversary of the "Triumph of the Revolution"
— the day in 1959 that Fidel Castro took power — so with Christmas
diminished, many Cubans adopted New Year's Eve as their end-of-year
occasion, gathering with family to exchange gifts and share a
traditional feast of roast pork, apple cider and Spanish candy bars
called turrones, among other delights.
The Christmas spirit began creeping back in 1990, when Cuba removed
references to atheism from its constitution, and allowed Christians and
other religious believers to join the Communist Party. After Pope John
Paul II visited in 1998 and met with Fidel Castro, Dec. 25 was restored
as an official national holiday.
These days, one of Cuba's most moving Christmas spectacles occurs at
Havana Joe Marti International Airport, where charter flights from Miami
and elsewhere arrive with teary-eyed Cubans carrying huge bundles of
gifts. Entire families stand outside the terminal to greet their loved
ones, as brothers and daughters and grandparents rush to embrace
relatives after years of separation, in some cases.
But for Cubans who don't have relatives coming from abroad to help them
financially, or who depend on woefully inadequate government salaries,
the holidays can also be a time of pain and bitterness.
"I wanted to buy my daughter a doll, but they cost $20 here," said
Alejandro Esposito, a mechanic, outside a toy store in Havana's Miramar
district. "That's more than I make in an entire month."
Nearby, Eglis Figueredo emerged from a department store with a miniature
plastic Christmas tree, pre-decorated in silvery ornaments and plastic
pine cones. Figueredo said her daughter and granddaughter were living in
Peru now, and most of her extended family lived in eastern Cuba, too far
to travel for the holiday. She had her church to go to on the 25th, but
she said she would probably spend Christmas Eve alone.
"It's a tough day for me," she said. "I'll be thinking about my daughter
and my granddaughter. I hope they can come visit me soon."
In Cuba, Christmas makes cautious return
Cuba | Christmas | Cuban Marxist Castro government (25 December 2009)