Irina Pino

A family New Years reunion.
A family New Years reunion.

HAVANA TIMES — Do people actually celebrate Christmas in Cuba? This is a tough question and every Cuban will likely have their own story to tell and share about the season.

Traditional Christmas celebrations weren’t seen at all in the 1970s. I don’t recall anyone celebrating Christmas Eve, or even New Year’s, back then. Despite that, I remember that my family would set up a small Christmas tree, made out of dry branches that my sister and I would gather from neighboring gardens and would decorate with ball ornaments, a silver star, a cat’s tail and cotton (adornments my mother had stored away since the 50s). We didn’t have any roast pork to eat or cider to drink, let alone the traditional 12 grapes. The times were tough.

Then, they opened up the Sears supermarket in Centro Habana, where they sold all kinds of food, drinks and sweets. I saw fruit conserves and ice-cream cake there for the first time (and couldn’t taste, for they cost 25 pesos, a very steep price back then, when money wasn’t coming in).

My mother, my sister and I decided to go buy a bit of pork for New Year’s dinner, but it wasn’t easy. We had to stand in line for more than 7 hours, and our legs almost gave in near the end. When we finally got inside the store, we were awestruck by all of the products there. We would glumly look at the full shelves with the thousands of things we couldn’t buy. What I remember most vividly are the ice-cream cakes, with the tiny drops of water seeping through the case…how hungry they made me!

The little money we had was enough to buy a tiny bit of pork and a jar of fruit conserves.

That night, my mother cooked the pork steaks, one for each family member. The steaks shrunk so much in the frying pan that they barely sated us. Later, we turned on the TV to watch a movie, but I wasn’t in the mood to watch anything and decided to lock myself up in my room. From there, I could hear the party next door, where a family of medical doctors with a lot of money lived. They were celebrating New Year’s with a big dinner, games of domino and blaring music.

I could only entertain myself listening to the radio and, to make matters worse, they started playing an extremely sad song by Joan Manuel Serrat that depressed me even more. I started weeping. It was the worst New Year’s of my life.

In the 80s and end of the 90s, we did celebrate New Year’s. An aunt of mine who lived in the United States would send us a 100 dollar bill every month for us to buy food. We destined some of that money to have a “discrete” New Year’s dinner with all the members of the family in Cuba. I recall we had great moments and that, later, the family began to split up. First my brother in law and then my nephews left the country.

These days, we generally have a lunch with the part of the family still in the country. However, one feels a huge void and I would rather skip these dates, to be honest.

Many are excited about these celebrations. They put on new clothes and are positive, thinking better times will come along – and I think this is all right. Others don’t even have a loaf of bread they can eat, live in ramshackle homes in subhuman conditions, so there’s no joy for them during the season.

There are no real Christmas celebrations down here. People don’t have the habit of buying gifts, decorating their homes or setting up colorful lights here and there. Santa Claus and the snow are things seen only in movies. What one sees the most on the street is darkness and neglect.

Some spend all of the money they have that night, “throwing the house out the window.” Then, they go back to their lives of need.


Irina Pino

Irina Pino: I was born in the middle of shortages in those sixties that marked so many patterns in the world. Although I currently live in Miramar, I miss the city center with its cinemas and theaters, and the bohemian atmosphere of Old Havana, where I often go. Writing is the essential thing in my life, be it poetry, fiction or articles, a communion of ideas that identifies me. With my family and my friends, I get my share of happiness.

9 thoughts on “Cuba’s Faux Christmas Celebrations

  • I never celebrated Christmas in Cuba, due to my parent’s job. They had to work at their hospitals no matter the circumstances. I do remember though that my neighborhood’s jineteras had a blast, they bought lots of food and had all their family got to get together to celebrate Noche Buena. There were also others that didn’t prostitute themselves and had a good time too, with less food of course.

  • You’re grasp of history is the same as your knowledge of economics, tenuous at best. So in the spirit of this Christmas holiday, with much love and kindness, o would encourage you to expand your reading list. Have a happy Christmas !

  • The same anti-communist Cold War that had you building a fallout shelter back in the 60s persists in the Cuban Embargo today.
    The U.S. foreign policy that began with the invasion of the just-born Soviet Union in 1918 was the beginning of a policy put in place to prevent the rise of any other economic system that could compete and beat totalitarian capitalism and/or U.S. hegemony.
    You might want to read the introduction to the book “Killing Hope” at the eponymous website
    and get a grasp of what U.S. foreign policy has been all about for 100 years .

  • Until the early 70’s, I remember “turrones”, Vina 95 sweet wine, Devil Ham cans and other small food and drink items the government gave during the holidays to the people, it wasn’t much but my family kept the Christmas spirit. Later the African swine fever virus decimated the pig population and pork meat was hard to find in Havana.

  • Christmas is marked by hope for the future and sharing. In the US there is the commercial version and after it’s rise in popularity, the Christian elevation of the event to it’s current high status. I am sorry for your pain after the revolution. I have memories of the 60’s too, and my father building a fallout shelter in our backyard in fear of the nuclear tipped missles aimed at Boston from Cuba. However we have put that behind us as times have changed and improved. We hold out hope for the coming year and share best wishes for our friends and family. I wish you a happy holiday season and hope that you and yours will have a great new year. It brings opportunity and change. Make the best of it!

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