Wednesday, January 2, 2013

The Evolving Celebration of Christmas

A little background. During the ”Revolutionary Offensive” (1968-1970), at the same time that all economic activities, except for small farmers, were nationalized and private activity, personal or in business entities, were prohibited, Fidel personally made an effort to stop Christmas celebrations and transform the New Year festivity into the welcoming of a new anniversary of the triumph of the Revolution, January 1, 1959.

The arguments were not religious. It went like this: the tradition of Christmas and big New Year parties correspond to Europe and North America, with cold seasons, in which snow and freezing temperatures didn't allow working in agriculture in the countryside or construction in the cities. In Cuba, it is just the opposite. From November until May it is the dry cooler season, in which you work much better in the fields. It is the time in which the harvests of sugar cane, rice, beans, potatoes, and also green vegetables, are plentiful. So, the economic logic is that this is a time to work: Cubans should celebrate in July.

So, the Party did a serious effort to convert traditional celebrations and days of December into the hailing of the Anniversary of the Revolution. They tried to move family meetings, children's celebrations and other big parties to official nonworking days around July 26.

Even so, the tradition of giving toys and presents to the children around the days of Christmas and the Three Wise Men went on and the Government, even during the years of scarcity in the end of the sixties provided, through the industrial articles rationing card, 3 toys for every child,- one more expensive and two inexpensive.

Celebrations went on in the Catholic and Christian churches, and, in private, some families gathered to eat on Christmas Eve, the night of the 24th, as is our tradition.

Culture, traditions and Christian beliefs proved to be much harder to change than it looked. After the debacle of “Real Socialism” in Europe, and during the “Special Period” (the economic collapse following the abrupt end of Soviet support), Cuban families restarted slowly the Christmas Eve gathering more publicly albeit still non-officially.

Fidel, always a shrewd politician, accepted the reality and took advantage of the first Papal visit to that year declare that on the 25th of December work will stop, as a gesture to the Catholic Church and Christians as a whole.

After this, Christmas trees and decorations came out of the closet and made a strong come back, including in state owned stores and restaurants.

An additional factor was the opening to tourism and the construction of new hotels or rebuilding of old ones which had to be decorated for Christmas for international guests. The difference between a sad, not decorated Havana, and the bright lights of Christmas trees in hotels was politically impossible to maintain.

No less important was the cascade of Cubans from Miami, Spain and elsewhere during the Christmas season. They came full of presents and happiness, wanting to enjoy and longing for a traditional Christmas eve dinner, full of joy and cariño (there is not an appropriated word in English for it). Except for the presents, they were received in the same way.

So, human links, meeting of similar cultures and family relations made Party policies obsolete and more than that, ridiculous.

Now, December 25 is legally a day to celebrate. Scores of private choruses of young children practice during the previous months and in these days appear in churches, hotels, and parks to sing Christmas carols. More and more people go to the Catholic churches at 12 o'clock “Misa del Gallo” on the 24th to welcome Jesus birth. In the Havana Cathedral, the widely respected Cardinal Ortega offers the mass and delivers the Sermon. People also go to other Christian churches for their services.

Construction workers, which are mostly from the eastern provinces, go back to their home towns for the period from around December 20th to the 2nd of January and it is very hard to keep labor in the sugar mills albeit in harvest. It is very true, that this is the best time to work in the fields in Cuba. A big movement of people takes place along the Island as Cubans go back to their elders' homes to celebrate. Special buses and trains have to be provided by the state.

Still, the official propaganda puts the emphasis on the New Year as the Anniversary of the Revolution as the main celebration. But there is no repression or official effort of any kind to dissuade the people from celebrating Christmas. The ideological defeat has been swallowed in the most gracious possible manner.

Economically speaking, families have a real problem to celebrate two so expensive and close to each other festivities like Christmas and New Years eve.

For Cubans, Christmas eve is a family celebration, -a dinner with roast pork, white rice, black beans, boiled yucca with mojito (garlic, lime juice, a little fried in pork lard), a salad with lettuce (a must) and at least tomatoes. The dessert is Spanish turrones and/or home made buñuelos.

New Year's Eve is a party with friends and, for the wealthy ones, in a night club. Dinner is part of the party including roast pork again as the main course. People have to choose some time which one will be the bigger celebration because there is not enough money for both.

The State stores sell Christmas decorations, but very expensive.

In sum, Christmas is back, and every year it goes more and more to be the old traditional happy and respectful family feast, away from politics. Even so by being itself it is political, reminding everybody where the cultural roots are of the Cuban nation.

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