HAVANA TIMES — I still remember the impression that the first Christmas trees I saw in Cuba at the close of the 90s made on me. Their sparkling decorations seemed plucked right out of a fairy tale, promising a world of warmth, love and tolerance…all available in hard currency, of course.
During those Christmas celebrations, made legal thanks to Pope John Paul II’s visit, I met a woman who was going through extremely hard financial times and who dreamt of having her own Christmas tree.
She had decked the pine shrub her kids had brought her with homemade decorations, into which she had poured all of her fancy: match-boxes covered with candy wrappers found on the street, small dolls dressed in colorful odds and ends procured from a seamstress, animal miniatures taken from her grandchildren’s toys and sprinkled with the silvery powder used in nail polish, Styrofoam balls imitating snow.
The whole family had pitched in – saving those dollars whose possession had also been illegal not long before, cent by cent – to buy a music-playing Christmas box fitted with scintillating lights.
Many of us were probably not aware of it, but we were witnessing the rebirth of a symbol: Christmas as a time of hope and reconciliation. After decades of Decembers devoid of lights and divine promises, denied a ritual that lights up the nights of nearly every country on the planet, we were once again becoming part of the world.
Expressions of different spiritual traditions, such as alternative medicine and yoga practices, had begun to be introduced into the country in 1994, such that the legalization of Christmas was the culmination of a liberalization process that was far more profound than it seemed.
It was an alternative to everyday material hardships that the government may have deployed to distract the population. For most Cubans, it was, before all else, an opportunity to recover their faith.
Not the faith one may deposit in religions, social systems or ideologies, but the faith in the will of the individual, in their ability to choose between right and wrong, in the inalienable boundlessness of their consciousness.
Even though the market has snatched up Christmas like yet another juicy product it can sell the public (and Cuba has followed suit), even though the subliminal (and not so subliminal) message is that prosperity ought to be the aim and sense of our lives, Jesus was a man who lived humbly in order to be truly free, a man who urged others to seek the truth and abide by values that, were they to be practiced by everyone, would put an end to the conflicts that scourge humanity.
This is what I think when I walk down the streets of Havana and see the multi-colored lights twinkling on store windows, houses and even gardens: even though it’s very hard to change the world, even with massive social revolutions, but individuals have never been deprived of the right to change themselves.