Holiday Cheer in Cuba?

As most of my friends in the rest of North America are starting in on their annual obsession with putting up lights on and around their houses and rooting around in their attics and basements for their boxes of Christmas ornaments, I was reflecting last weekend on how different a turn my holiday season took when I moved away from all that to Cuba in the early ‘90’s. When I first moved here, most people worked on Dec. 25 – it was not yet a statutory holiday. And it didn’t become a statutory holiday until the year Pope John Paul visited Cuba. A lot of things changed that year, including a general crackdown on prostitution in Cuba in his honor. Another papal visit may be in the works for Cuba in 2012. I think some houses even still have the papal posters that were widely distributed in Cuba stuck to their walls, kind of like the census stickers that are still on some people’s doors, despite the fact that the last census took place here in 2002.

My early childhood religious education involved attending Presbyterian Sunday school in my largely Protestant community in Prince Edward Island. Our rural school student population was largely made up of Presbyterians and Catholics, whose parishes were largely divided along community lines drawn by early settlers in that area. We all got along relatively well, probably each mostly largely unaware of the relatively minor differences in the other’s beliefs since most of us celebrated the major holidays mostly in the same ways. The big one was of course always Christmas, and everybody liked to compare loot when they returned to classes after this holiday. “What’d you get, huh huh?” I’m not sure what made her do it, but at one point my mother got involved in a California-based church called the Worldwide Church of God and began to raise her children to follow their teachings as well. They celebrate the Sabbath instead of going to church on Sunday, there was no eating pork, shrimp or lobster, and no Christmas or birthday parties either. Oh, and no makeup for the women (although I believe they’ve since become more flexible on this particular rule). As with most organized religions, there was a certain amount of teaching on the reasons why it was wrong to do each of these things, which I’ll not go into here. Although I wasn’t at one with it for some time, it took me awhile to build up the courage to tell my mother that I no longer wanted to be part of the church that she had chosen. Since I was only in the early part of my high school career at that point, I can tell you that it wasn’t because I had any huge philosophical revelations that brought me to that decision, but rather it was mostly because I didn’t want to feel isolated from my peers. The desire to belong, to do the same things that all my friends were doing, was what drew me to that decision more than anything. Maybe also because no teenage girl in modern times wants to be deprived of the benefits of cosmetics! Not long after, my mother also withdrew from the church and I don’t believe she’s made organized religion a regular part of her weekly routine since then.

So flash forward to my husband’s family in Cuba. My husband is a child of the Revolution. His paternal grandfather was a Mason until the day he died, and his father was a Mason before the Revolution too. In fact, that’s exactly how he became involved in Fidel’s plans to overthrow Batista’s corrupt government. He held the key to the Masonic Lodge in Artemisa and that’s where the secret meetings were held to plan for the attack on the Moncada Garrison in 1955. He ended up being the only living survivor of the hospital part of that attack and later was forced to live in exile in the USA where he studied international law until the Revolution triumphed on January 1, 1959 and he was allowed to return to his motherland. He worked as a teacher and married my mother-in-law who was raised as a Catholic. My mother in law taught philosophy for a time at the University of Havana. She was deeply committed to the Revolutionary ideals and both of them abandoned their religious upbringings, as was apparently common at the time, for those who were affiliated with the Communist Party. I’m not sure if my husband’s grandmother ever really forgave her for that. She remained a devout Catholic until the day she died, and was adamant about having someone take her to the church every year on a certain date since she’d made a “promesa” (promise) for some prayer that had been answered years ago. For me, my mother in law has filled in some of the philosophical reasons why people look to religion in their lives. When you think about it, life’s hard. You are born, most of us have to work hard to earn money to buy food and shelter, raise offspring and family to whom you become very emotionally attached, and then you die. Most of us want to believe there’s something more than that, a higher purpose, and that’s why we look to religion to provide us with a framework for how we conduct ourselves on this planet and what will come in the afterlife. She’s a very practical woman, and I don’t think that the lack of organized religion in her adult life has at all compromised her strong moral values.

My huge Christmas tree

There was a time in Cuba when Christmas trees were all but forbidden and only in more recent times have the miniature fake trees begun to appear in the shops in December, although it’s still a relatively small number of people that I know anyway that bother to buy one or put one up. The commercial trappings of this holiday are more visible in the hotels that host foreigners than in the homes of Cubans. Waking up and venturing out of the hotel room I lived in my first year here, instead of the cries of “Merry Christmas” on Dec. 25, it sounded weird to me to hear Cubans saying “Felicidades” to fellow hotel guests on Christmas morning. My brother’s wife is a Jehovah’s Witness and is raising their three daughters in her religion. They don’t celebrate birthdays or Christmas either, and my sister was telling me the other day that our middle niece (she’s still preschool) has just discovered that although she’s not allowed to say “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Birthday” it’s acceptable to say “Congratulations” in certain circumstances. So she’s going around saying it all the time. My sister even shared a drawing Alicia had made for her with a big CONGRATULATIONS written across it. So she’ll feel right at home when they get back here next week since Felicidades=Congratulations.

Recently we did our regular Saturday thing with some friends in our motorcycle club. After fixing a headlight, we went with another couple to visit some more motorcycle friends who lived nearby. The friends we went to visit don’t have a lot of extra cash or luxuries around their house. Of course (as any good Cuban hosts will do) they offered coffee when we arrived, which I declined. My friend said she’d have a soda and our host looked at her blankly for a second and we all started to laugh. Not everyone has money to have soda in their house except on birthdays or special occasions. She looked at my friend and told her if she wanted cola she’d have to go out and buy some since all she had to offer was coffee or water. It was getting to be mid-afternoon and we hadn’t eaten yet. They offered us some bread with “pasta” (kind of like a flavored mayo spread). We mentioned we were planning on getting a bite to eat somewhere and they decided they’d like to come along too. Before we left, they called some more friends who said they wanted to come too. I just love when this happens since the more, the merrier. The other friend happens to be a babalao (a Santeria priest). When we got to his house he announced that when he heard we were coming he had his helpers prepare some lobster and that instead of going to the cafeteria where we were all planning on visiting, we were going to have lunch at his house. So we all sat down to swap stories while the food was being prepared. The babalao came around with presents for the women (I’m now wearing quite a lovely silver chain from Mexico) and a round of drinks for everyone. Although I’d met him before I’d never been to his house and I was asking one of the girls if the big room we were in (with two super-long picnic tables set up on either side) and tamboras (African drums) hung on the walls was where he held his meetings. She hesitated for a second before telling me that she wasn’t sure, that she doesn’t know too much about Santeria. I’m not sure if she was telling me the absolute truth, or if I was being intrusive with my question. You see, my husband’s a non-believer, although I don’t know if I’d call him a complete Athiest. Because although he might not worship the Christian God, he’s just as superstitious as most Cubans and you won’t see him open a bottle of rum without dumping out a few drops onto the floor in the beginning for “los Santos” (the Saints). It’s like an insurance policy. You might not believe, but it’s better to be safe than sorry.

Although December 25th is now officially a statutory holiday in Cuba, Santa doesn’t come to many houses here. But much better than a bunch of commercial hubbub, a lot of families gather together for a family dinner on December 24th. In Latin American culture this is called La Nochebuena (the good night). It’s much more meaningful than the commercial farce that this holiday has turned into in the developed world. Some families here (if they believe in it and/or can financially handle it) do distribute presents for their children on totally different dates which correspond to the “Reyes Magos” tradition. The big holiday in Cuba is really December 31st though, but again its celebration has little to do with how most of my friends in Canada bring in the New Year with gala parties, dancing, champagne and lots of other booze, all in an adults only atmosphere. While there are a few venues here that do that, in Cuba most people celebrate this holiday with loved ones. A lot of people like to save up especially the last few months of the year so that they can celebrate this holiday in style (sadly, it’s also the reason the petty crime/theft rate spikes in the last couple of months before January hits). We pick the home of some member of the family where everyone will gather for a special family meal, usually some rum is part of the festivities, dancing, and when midnight hits the champagne cork doesn’t hit the ceiling, but rather everyone stands at attention for the national anthem. In Cuba the arrival of January 1st celebrates the triumph of the Revolution, so only after the anthem is over do you kiss all your family and extended family. Another couple of funny traditions here include throwing out a bucket of water at midnight (usually the water you used to clean the house earlier in the day, meaning out with the hold/in with the new), and for those who have dreams of taking a trip somewhere, to drag your suitcase around the block at the strike of twelve. This is particularly funny to watch.

I’m not sure I could ever really get into the groove of celebrating Christmas the way my friends do in Canada anymore, although I’m sure they’d all think it was Scrooge-y of me to think that way. But forsaking all that commercial frenzy in favor of some simple good times with family and friends really has its merit. There’s nothing wrong with giving meaningful gifts either, but why not do it throughout the year when the mood strikes you instead of feeling obliged to feed into commercialism and break the bank for the December 25th deadline? I guess it’s relatively easy to totally forget about Christmas when you’re living in a warm climate. But here’s a notice to my friends: if I ever spend the month of December in Canada again, please don’t buy me any presents or spend your money on Hallmark cards in my honor. Let’s just plan a meal and a get-together because it will mean much more to me to share your time, stories, and laughter than any gift you could possibly buy.

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6 thoughts on “Holiday Cheer in Cuba?

    • So sweet Trudi! Maybe one day when I retire (if that ever happens!) I might consider writing to take up my time. Fow now, I just write short pieces on random topics whenever I feel like it, no pressure – it’s better than professional therapy!

    • Well if your own Dad is one of your biggest fans, I guess it can’t be all bad. I’m glad somebody enjoys reading this stuff anyway, I was beginning to think nobody actually read it!

  1. Yes indeed, some of us read your blog, and your own dad isn’t your only fan. I really enjoyed learning more about the way Cubans celebrate the holidays, as I have never been in Cuba at that time and knew only that it was primarily a time of family get-togethers. When my North American friends complain about how horribly commercial (and expensive, and stressful) the holiday season is, I just tell them: “Spend it in Cuba, where the warmth of the sun, the beach, and the people will be all the gifts you need.”

    Rosa Jordan,
    British Columbia

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