Xmas Trees in Cuba: Ideology, Class & Status

Dmitri Prieto

Christmas Tree at Havana Restaruant.  Photo: Caridad
Christmas Tree at Havana Restaruant. Photo: Caridad

Anyone strolling down a Cuban street around this time of year will see many homes and some businesses displaying Christmas trees.  Since Cuba doesn’t have native firs, all of these evergreens are artificial.  Though it occurs to some residents to decorate certain plants or bushes in their yards, these are not necessarily similar to the popular conifers.

Years ago, I remember it was “incorrect” to put up Christmas trees in Cuba.  They were seen as foreign and too Christian, despite their probable Druid origin.

Although in pre-revolutionary Cuba these were in fact imported massively from the US, the custom of having a Christmas tree never took root; that’s to say, it always maintained it original association with snow, reindeers and Santa Claus.

After 1959, this same holiday was one of the many customs banned as a symbol of imperialistic kitsch.

Since my family is Russo-Cuban, we always had our tree at the end of the year.  Although Christmas per se was not celebrated in that epoch of “militant atheism,” the tree nonetheless symbolized the beginning of the year for us.

Our family friends always looked at it with surprise and delight.  In the Soviet Union, the Yuletide pine was banished soon after the Revolution of 1917, but it returned on some uncertain date, probably during the war against Nazism.  In such a time of extreme tension, sadness and shortages it was important that everyone -especially the children- had a few moments of happiness and hope.

The return to Cuba of this northern New Year’s aesthetic also began at a critical moment in our country: the “Special Period” economic crisis of the 1990s.

I remember how by the middle of the ’90s the company Correos de Cuba (Cuba Mail) printed up a series of New Year’s postcards, one of which was the moon disguised as Santa Claus.  That postcard in particular disappeared quickly from the stands, though we never knew if vanished from being the most popular or if it perished under the knives of the State censors.

After the 1998 visit by Pope John Paul II, Christmas returned to the calendar of Cuban holidays.  Ever since, we usually enjoy not one but two Christmas concerts on TV: one organized by the Catholic Church in the Havana Cathedral, and another by the Council of Churches at the Amadeo Roldan State-run Theater.  It is an exceptional moment to see Christian choruses on TV.

Even the families of revolutionary activists who had never been religious reclaimed the tradition of Christmas Eve, joining in with believers in the hectic search for ingredients for the food festivities on the evening before the 25th.

But there’s still a certain regularity.  Christmas trees are not displayed by businesses that sell in domestic currency or in goverment or semi-official institutions. The tree is an almost exclusive feature of businesses that operate in Cuba’s hard “CUC” currency, churches and those patronized by foreigners.

The tree and its decorations can be bought only with CUCs.

In general, lower-income people do without of these ornamental saplings in their homes. Nonetheless, almost everyone decorates their residences the best they can, and there are those who hang the traditional stocking (a sock) on their door – meaning they identify with Santa Claus.

On the other hand, the real “kitsch of the upper classes” is becoming increasingly visible during this festive period.  Some of their more globalized kids also even celebrate Halloween, and I imagine that someday they’ll go so far as to observe Thanksgiving.  In fact, according to research by Marial Iglesias, Cubans resisted taking part in that holiday in the early 1900s, when Cuba was militarily occupied by the US.

Maybe the sad part of New Year’s aesthetics here is that the Christmas tree is becoming one of the signs status and class.  There is not the orgy of commercialism in Cuba during this time -beyond the search for some simple gifts and food for a party- but money is now marking the difference.

For me, Christmas trees never did feel right in the tropical context of Cuba.  But if somebody likes them, why should we interfere with their enjoyment or pleasure?

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