When Celebrating Christmas was a Crime in Cuba

By Leonardo M. Fernandez Otaño (El Toque)  

HAVANA TIMES – Christmas was one of the religious holidays that was suppressed in the public space in 1969, during the climax of the totalitarian State in Cuba. The leaders began to clash with the Catholic Church in late 1959, getting worse when Catholic schools were expropriated and religious processions were suspended. There were also executions by firing squad without due process.

Christmas was one of the most firmly-rooted celebrations in Cuba’s popular imagination, but the holiday was put off with the Stalinization of society, migration, the Revolutionary Offensive and the excuse of the 1970 sugar harvest. Later, the meaning of religious celebrations was passed onto political commemorations linked to the Revolution, such as July 26th and January 1st.

Celebrating Christmas was limited to inside Christian Churches and families, who paid a great social price for holding onto their faith. This situation got even worse with the announcement of the State’s atheist nature in the 1976 Constitution, as it reinforced the criminalization of religious acts. Hundreds of Catholic homes continued to celebrate the sacred holiday, despite being targeted as bastions of the bourgeois past, which there was no room for in the New Man project.

Carlos Amador, a lay Catholic living in Bayamo, has agreed to share his experiences during the decades of religious persecution. According to Carlos, his father proposed his family put up “a proper tree”, a year after Christmas decorations disappeared from stores. Carlos says that in his personal experience, they stuck to making the tree and Nativity scene for his parish church. Things got complicated when his father wanted to decorate the tree with decorations that didn’t exist in the country.

But the Amador family proved the resilience and ingenuity of Catholic homes at the time. His father found a dry plant and painted it white. Then, he made different shapes out of condensed milk cans to decorate the tree. This ingenuity was repeated in many Christian homes that kept the tradition of celebrating Christmas dinner, going to Midnight Mass and giving little presents to their children on Three Kings Day, alive.

A new era began when preparations were underway for Pope John Paul II’s visit during 1997. One of the conditions the Holy See requested of the Cuban Government was to reinstate December 25th as a national holiday. The 1990s were marked by the growth and visibility of the Catholic parish as a result of the crisis that began with the fall of Socialism in the USSR and Eastern Europe. The crisis forced the Cuban regime to make some reforms for a political opening. Atheism was removed in the 1992 Constitutional reform, and the State was recognized as lay.

This religious opening went hand-in-hand with a diversification of the Catholic parish in the country. Lays who had been distanced from the religion because of persecution, people who converted during the crisis and new churchgoers born after 1959. However, the public reinstatement of Christmas led to a phenomenon that was unknown to new generations of Cubans, Christmas decorations appeared in foreign currency stores: wreaths, tinsel, balls and trees.

Meanwhile, many Cubans citizens – including Catholics – let their creativity run loose. Ever since the early ‘90s, they made their own Christmans trees and Nativity scenes with recycled and handmade materials, using plaster and old molds. Asela Lemus was one of the Catholic women dedicated to making small homemade trees to sell or give away to her friends.

Lemus says: “people didn’t really celebrate Christmas back then, my husband Jorge and I had the idea of making our own tree. So, we made a small one by hand (which then served as a model) and we even managed to make a small Bethlehem.” The following year, Asela thought about making a few so she could give them away to her friends. “We suffered quite a few setbacks that time, because they were completely hand-made. We perfected the technique the following Christmas, and we managed to make 100 trees per year. That’s how we spent five years up untl 1998, but then they began selling them in malls and that’s when it became impossible for us to compete,” she adds.

Asela and her husband’s experience is proof of how Christmas has been gradually settling in again with a certain segment of the population, who socialized religious signs that identify the holiday with its touching surroundings now that they can show their faith.

After 1998, Christmas became more and more present in Cuban homes. While it didn’t spread among society like it had done in the past, many families (whether that was because they were watching foreign TV, religious reasons or because of a growing relationship with the diaspora community), the Christmas celebration now forms part of their end of year celebrations.

That’s how a holiday that had been ripped out of History books by totalitarianism is now being celebrated again. The return of the Christmas holiday takes many forms and has unleashed the Cuban people’s creativity.

Read more from Cuba here on Havana Times.