How I Discovered Christmas in Cuba

By Ariel Glaria Enriquez

Photo: Nike

HAVANA TIMES – There was a box with Christmas tree decorations among my grandmother’s things. Finding it was like finding treasure. Where I found it, the dust that covered it and the great care that was taken to protect each piece inside the box, had all of the fascination of a well-kept secret… I thought so anyway.

My home was an apartment in a residential building, which didn’t have space for strange hideouts because of the way it was laid out. Nevertheless, I imagined there were hiding places and that they would be found in my grandparents’ room.

I remember the impression a huge black and white photo had on me, of a saint looking lost in thought at a crucifix in his hands, from behind the glass of the frame. It was the only religious picture in the house and it was in my grandparents’ room. So, if there was a secret in that house, it had to be in that room.

Something else I found mysterious was the fact that I was never allowed to be in that room alone. Excluding the times that I fell asleep in my grandparents’ bed. My mother would spend the rest of the time trying to get me out of there.

This would spark my curiosity more and more. So, one day, I went to check it out when everybody thought that I was sleeping. There weren’t many places for me to look, except for the wardrobe drawers.

It became almost routine for me to do this and, apart from a small chest lined with blue velvet that had a golden women’s watch inside (that I discovered the first time I looked around), there was nothing else in that wardrobe that looked like treasure. Even so, I would check the drawers every time I could.

From the very first day, I was drawn to an envelope wrapped in pink ribbon, that had photos and letters with declarations of love. I didn’t pay much attention to the photos at first. However, I really liked the letters.

A couple always appeared kissing, wrapped in a kind of atmosphere that reminded me of clouds that normally fog up old mirrors. However, the thing that made those letters feel really old was the delicate calligraphy used to write the dedications.

I could see my grandfather’s handwriting in them. I seem to remember falling asleep one afternoon among those photos and letters, but I can’t remember being told off so I’m not so sure…

The careful writing style could especially be seen in the capital letters, for some inexplicable reason, and this reinforced my conviction that there might be a treasure about. I’ve said that looking in my grandparents’ room became almost a routine, and just when I began to get bored of it, I realized that I never checked the closet.

It was in the darkest corner of the room. You had to switch on the light to find anything inside it. But that wasn’t the only thing… I also realized in that moment that the closet had remained hidden from my eyes. The main reason being that it was where the least sunlight came into the room, because of the angle it was placed at, but there it was and it had always been there.

The afternoon I discovered the closet, I wasn’t thinking about hidden treasures. I had discovered a new feeling and it had its own name. This changed my unease of going to school early to check my grandparents’ wardrobe to the anxiety of wanting to stay at school as long as possible so I could be close to Rebeca. I had fallen in love.

I shared this love with my best friend at the time. Both of us were in love with the same girl. I remember that we had even argued one day about just how much we would do for her. I don’t remember what he said, but my argument was that I would be able to share a treasure with her. I didn’t regret saying it, but I stopped thinking about hidden treasures for a while.

One day, a rumor traveled around at school saying that Rebeca’s parents had left Cuba and taken her to the US, via the port of Mariel. When the news reached our class, my teacher ran out of the classroom and her glasses fell to the floor. It was a reaction of sincere surprise, as sincere as some of us wanting to cry.  

Those days were a great commotion. Streets were full of people shouting at those leaving the country and the TV broadcast images of marches with people cheering and shouting slogans and carrying insulting posters.

When Rebeca left, my friend and I made up, escaping school every afternoon to swim in Havana’s Malecon.

It was a double relief for us. On the one hand, it distracted us from our sadness. On the other hand, swimming in the Malecon was an escape from the mass hysteria that the Mariel exodus had triggered.

One afternoon, we threw ourselves into the sea and swam without stopping to where we thought nobody could hear us. Without talking about it, we began to shout “Viva Rebeca” at the top of our lungs, wishing her the best of luck and saying that we would never forget her.

In some way, it was our way of opposing the hate rallies and staged protests. That day, I really learned what swallowing saltwater is like.

I don’t remember how all of that ended. Up until today, I seem to remember it ended just as quickly as the sudden wave of hysteria that submerged us. This is how I learned that how much hate we have is proportionate to how ridiculous it manifests itself and how quickly people hating want to forget what they’ve done.

Meanwhile, after swimming in the Malecon, I had nothing better to do than think about looking for hidden treasures again. If there really was a treasure in my house, I already knew where to find it.

The first time I opened the closet, I walked away disappointed. There was only a chair and some dresses that my grandmother wore around the house, that was it. I couldn’t believe it. The first thought that popped into my mind was Rebeca: what grand gesture of love could I give her by showing her a chair stuck in a closet?   

I went back to checking it out, the following afternoon. The picture of that chair on its own, enshrouded in the closet’s darkness, followed me around all day at school. That was when it occurred to me that the chair couldn’t be there just to put clothes on.

That afternoon, I ran home and went straight to my grandparents’ room and opened up the closet. This time, the chair was empty. I poked my head in, looked up and saw a box. I climbed on the chair and touched it. The first thing I saw was the pile of dust that covered it, then, that I didn’t need light to get it and, last of all, that it didn’t weigh anything.

That disappointed me a little, but it didn’t stop me from taking it out. I jumped down, put the box on the floor, dusted my hands on my school uniform trousers and opened it. At that moment, I felt like nothing could ever surprise me again, for the first time in my life: the box was full of cotton wool.

I stuck my hand in and took out the first solid object I touched. It was the same size and shape as a baseball, but it didn’t weigh anything and it was wrapped in a layer of cotton. I broke it when trying to take off the cotton. 

I stuck my hand in the box again and took out another object. This one was also round, and didn’t weigh anything just like the one before it. I managed to unwrap it this time, with greater care. There before me was a fragile blue glass ball. I decided to hold it in both hands so as not to break it. That’s how I went into the kitchen and showed my grandmother.

My search for treasure ended with this memory. Some days later, my grandmother showed me photos with a Christmas tree, she showed me all of the pieces, explaining how she would hang them and the order she’d do them in. I never asked why they stopped putting up a Christmas tree and why we didn’t celebrate Christmas in Cuba anymore. It was up to me to unravel this mystery on my own.

Read more from Ariel Glaria’s diary here.

One thought on “How I Discovered Christmas in Cuba

  • What a beautiful story. Thank you for your memories. I hope Rebecca reads your story today and that a special bond is created. Even though there’s no Christmas tree today, you recall your grandmothers pictures of the Christmas tree and with your imagination you can see just how beautiful a Christmas tree can be with all of its ornaments and lights. Wishing you, your grandma and your family a very merry Christmas. May 2021 bring you all good health, love and success amongst some beautiful treasures and cherished memories. Happy new year Ariel !

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