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.