|Christmas has been celebrated as a holiday in Cuba for
only 3 years. Cuba officially became an atheist nation in 1962, but the Christmas holiday
was celebrated until 1969, when Fidel Castro decided it was interfering with the sugar
harvest. Accordingly, it was dropped from the Cuban calendar of holidays in 1969 as
the island strove for a record sugar harvest.
However, the church had continued to call for greater respect for the celebration of
Christmas after authorities banned the public display of Christmas trees and nativity
scenes, other than in places frequented by tourists, such as hotels.
In 1997 President Castro restored the holiday to honor, the visit of Pope John Paul II in
the island. Although Catholicism is a broad cultural backdrop in Cuba, the number of
practicing Catholics among the country's 11 million people is more limited.
With the reinstatement of the X'mas a large Mass is held in Havana's
Revolution Square. Thousands of Cubans worship at midnight Masses, as church bells ring
out across Havana to mark the moment when Christmas Eve becomes Christmas Day.
Cubans celebrate Christmas with traditional fervor and revelry. Those who can afford it
try to make a special meal and decorate their houses, and church-going Christians attend
services. Cubans spent the days before Christmas buying pork, apple cider, beans, bananas
and other fruit in preparation for their holiday festivities.
Cuba is a Caribbean island between the Caribbean Sea and the North Atlantic Ocean, 90
miles south of Key West, Florida.
Cuban Christmas customs were similar to those of Spain, with some North American
influences, prior to the revolution of 1959 when Fidel Castro assumed power.
The most festive time during the holidays was nochebuena (lit. "good
night") or Christmas Eve. A traditional meal consisting of roast pork, black beans
served over rice, fried mashed plantains and "yuca"--a native tuber best known
by North Americans as tapioca, but also called cassava or mandioc in other regions. Large
families would roast an entire pig by digging a pit in the ground and roasting it over
coals, covered with banana leaves. In the cities, an oven-roasted fresh ham was more
common. For desert, a type of nougat candy from Spain called turron was
traditionally served. There are three main varieties of this delicacy: egg or yema,
hard almond nougat from Alicante, or soft almond nougat from Jijona. Candied quince, membrillo
from Spain, native candied guava, and walnuts and filberts imported from the U.S. would
complement the turron; and, of course, there would have been the ubiquitous Cuban flan--a
very sweet custard--served with Cuban coffee, remarkably stronger than espresso!
The family, which in Cuba meant the extended family of aunts, uncles, cousins,
grandparents, and seemingly every imaginable living relative, would feast and dance to
Cuban music. This was followed by everyone attending midnight mass together. By contrast,
Christmas day was a relatively quiet day. As in Spain, gifts were exchanged on the day of
Epiphany, or January 6th, when children were told that their gifts had been brought by the
Magi, Reyes Magos. Schools would always be closed on January 6th for this
observance, as this was the day children would receive their toys.
There were no Christmas trees in Cuba until the 1940s when the tradition was introduced
from the United States. Due to the proximity to the U.S., Santa Claus also found his way
there eventually, but he was not the bringer of toys as he is in the U.S.--only of candy.
By the 1950s, quite a bit of the commercialism so prevalent in the U.S. had made its way
to Cuba. Decorated storefronts, gift giving, American Christmas carols and dubbed versions
of American Christmas classics were common.
After the communist revolution, celebrations of Christmas ceased and were discouraged
as Marxism-Leninism holds to a basically secular, atheist philosophy.
As a result of the Pope's visit to Cuba several years ago, Christmas celebrations have
returned. There are Christmas and Reyes Magos processions once again and, in this age of
satellite television, large, outdoor TV screens are set up in the square outside Havanna's
cathedral so that crowds can watch the Pope celebrate Christmas Mass at St. Peter's in
to Celebrate Christmas
02 December, 1998
By Ross Adams
CNS Staff Writer
(CNS) The Cuban Communist Party has proposed for the second year in a row
that Christmas be celebrated in the isolated island nation. UPI reports that the party is
calling for the reinstatement of December 25th as a permanent holiday. In a declaration
published by the party's official newspaper, leaders say they were justified in banning
Christmas celebrations since 1970. They say it was for economic and not religious reasons.
December 10, 1997
Church wants Christmas reinstated in communist Cuba
By Frances Kerry
HAVANA, Dec 9 (Reuters) - Cuba's Catholic church is waiting to see if the communist
government will restore the Christmas holiday this year ahead of the Pope's visit, its
leader said on Tuesday. Christmas ceased to be a holiday in Cuba nearly 30 years ago under
the revolution led by Fidel Castro. Pope John Paul II will visit the island in January for
the first time. Cardinal Jaime Ortega told a news conference that the pontiff asked Castro
for Christmas to be reinstated as a public holiday when they met a year ago at the
Vatican. He said it would be "very desirable'' for the government to restore
Christmas, but added that there was still no official word on the matter. Christmas was
dropped from the Cuban calendar of holidays in 1969 as the island strove for a record
sugar harvest. December 25 is now a normal working day in Cuba, although many Cubans do
celebrate Christmas in their own homes. Those who can afford it try to make a special meal
and decorate their houses, and church-going Christians attend services.
Two years ago, the church called for greater respect for the celebration of Christmas
after authorities banned the public display of Christmas trees and nativity scenes, other
than in places frequented by tourists, such as hotels. Ortega said that not knowing
whether Christmas would be a holiday again was holding up his own decision on whether to
make the one appearance he has been granted on state television in December or in January.
Ortega has been allowed to go on television to explain the significance of the papal
visit. But he said the church would like more access to the state-run media to explain the
visit, saying there had been little on the papal trip in the media.
Although Catholicism is a broad cultural backdrop in Cuba, the number of practising
Catholics among the country's 11 million people is more limited. Many ordinary Cubans know
little about the Pope and his work.
Ortega, who Monday night celebrated the last of a series of 13 preparatory masses in the
Havana region with an open-air service in the capital's cathedral square, gave a broad
outline of the pope's program in Cuba.
He said the pontiff, who will spend each night in Havana, would address the theme of the
family at a mass in the central city of Santa Clara on Jan. 22, the day after his arrival.
In the afternoon he would meet Castro for 30-45 minutes at the Palace of the Revolution.
On Jan. 23, he would travel to Camaguey and address the issue of youth, returning to visit
Havana University in the afternoon.
The following day he would visit the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba, addressing the
theme of patriotism and crowning Cuba's Roman Catholic patron, the Virgin of Charity of
Cobre. He would later meet sick people in a visit to a hospital on the outskirts of
On his last day, the pontiff would celebrate mass in Havana's Revolution Square and then
meet Catholic clergy and lay people at the city's cathedral, before leaving for Rome.
The historic meeting between Castro and the Pope in November last year marked a clear
improvement in ties between his communist government and the Catholic church, which have
been frequently strained since the 1959 revolution.
RELIGION: Cuba to Officially Celebrate Christmas
By Dalia Acosta
HAVANA, Dec 2 (IPS) - The Cuban Communist Party (PCC) is putting the holiday back into
Christmas ''for Christians and non- Christians, believers and non-believers alike.''
Suspended in 1969 and allowed as an ''exception'' last year, the Christmas Eve meal is
one of the oldest traditions of Cuban families, regardless of whether they are practicing
The Christmas holiday also is high on the list of demands of the Catholic Church in
Cuba which gained strength through the visit of Pope John Paul II here in January this
Christmas will be returned to the Cuban calendar as ''proof of our consideration and
respect for the wholesome sentiments and desires of our fellow citizens,'' said a
declaration from the PCC Political Bureau published by the Communist party daily 'Granma.'
''No type of campaign or pressure has been applied either within or outside'' Cuba for
the government of President Fidel Castro to allow celebration of the Christmas holiday
''just as is done throughout the Americas and the rest of the Western world,'' the
Political Bureau said.
According to the Communist leadership, bringing back the holiday implies ''sacrificing
millions of pesos (on a par with dollars at the official exchange rate) in salaries and
goods and services not produced,'' at a time when the country is riding out a severe
The PCC declaration appeared aimed at united the island's population behind the Cuiban
revolution, ue to celebrate its 40th anniversary in January.
Although the PCC Political Bureau only proposed Cuba officially recognize Christmas in
its declaration to the State Council Tuesday, its acceptance is regarded as a formality.
Both the party leadership body and the government are headed by Castro.
Reacting to the news, the president of the Cuban Conference of Catholioc Bishops,
Monsignor Adolfo Rodriguez, said ''we are interested in this development...it seems
logical and highly probable to us that Christmas will be recognised as a holiday.''
Orlando Marquez, spokesman of the episcopal conference, said the reinstitution of the
Christmas holiday was ''without a doubt a positive step'' corresponding with ''the
religious sentiments of the Cubans.''
''Christians never stopped celebrating Christmas, even when the day was not recognized
as a holiday,'' he said.
According to the Political Bureau, Christmas originally was excluded from the list of
public holidays when the authorities were caught up in trying to concentrate all possible
resources to bring in a 10 million ton sugar harvest.
Official arguments state December is ''a dry month, cool, highly suited to work on
construction and the sowing, growing or harvesting of potatoes, vegetables, sugarcane,
tobacco and other items important to the national economy.''
Hence it was the economic imperative which led to the cancellation of Christmas and
also the elimination of any political event or national celebration on January 1 - the
commemoration date of the Cuban Revolution.
''The best evidence that the suspension of the holiday on December 25 was not of a
political nature, was the fact it remained untouched for 10 years'' following the
revolution in 1961, argued the PCC document. The suspension of the Christmas holiday for
more than two decades ''was not inspired by any religious sentiment, although there are
some people abroad who have perfidiously tried to say otherwise.''
The Political Bureau said not even enemy action would have been able to impose ''the
mean, awkward and undiplomatic idea, of suspending (a religious holiday) for philosophical
differences,'' with the risk of offending hundreds of millions of Christians worldwide.
''No true Marxist would ever commit this mistake,'' it added categorically.
It warned, however, the revolution will still continue to defend itself against
unscrupulous methods used by ''imperialism'' (the United States) to destroy it - including
the use of religious sentiments for counter-revolutionary ends.
Cardinal praises restoration of Christmas in Cuba
by Seattle Times news services
HAVANA - Granted a rare opportunity to speak on government radio, Cuban Cardinal Jaime
Ortega said yesterday the restored Christmas holiday had brought joy to the country's
people, and he urged them to preserve the day as one of faith and family love, free from
Ortega, archbishop of Havana and leader of Cuba's Catholics, made the plea in a special
15-minute Christmas message broadcast on a minor state radio station.
"This is a great joy for the church and for the Cuban people," Ortega said in
his broadcast. "Now let us hope that it won't be the commercial tinkling of an
imported Santa Claus that announces Christmas in Cuba."
After abolishing the Dec. 25 holiday in 1969 to concentrate national efforts on the
strategic sugar harvest, Cuba's communist government this month officially restored
Christmas Day to the national public holiday calendar.
It was not immediately clear how many Cubans actually heard Ortega's message or even
knew about it.
Much of Cuba's state mass media appeared to largely ignore the holiday.
On its front page, the Communist Party newspaper Granma carried a lead article hailing
the rapid growth of the island's tourist sector and a piece headlined "Communist
Youth celebrates 40 Januaries" in reference to the upcoming 40th anniversary of
Cuba's 1959 revolution.
Even if all Cubans did not grasp the religious or historical significance of the day,
most took advantage of the holiday to spend time with family and friends.
On Christmas Eve, many Cubans revived the old tradition of a family meal, usually pork,
rice, beans and vegetables. Some went to Catholic Mass and other Christian ceremonies held
at midnight on Christmas Eve and later again on Christmas Day.
The Return of Christmas
The first official religious holiday is a low-key but heartfelt
The tinny renditions of Christmas carols that played in stores and churches throughout
Havana this holiday season suggested that Santa Claus was coming to town. Cubans were
prepared, judging by the 3-ft. artificial trees and plastic Santas adorning many homes,
and they weren't entirely disappointed. The U.S. State Department last week provided a
belated Christmas gift--a slight change in policy that will allow any American citizen,
not just those of Cuban descent, to send money to individuals and nongovernment
organizations in Cuba. But uncertainty, more than joy, ruled the holidays, and the
estimated $600,000 to $800,000 a year that enters the economy from abroad doesn't begin to
touch the needs of the average Cuban, who makes only $10 a month.
Cubans are accustomed to doing without. Since the revolution, which turned 40 on New
Year's Day, they have learned to live with little in the way of disposable income,
personal freedoms or religious celebrations. The Castro government has had a particular
problem with Christmas--perhaps because it occurs so close to Jan. 1. The holiday was
officially banned by Fidel Castro in 1969, ostensibly to squeeze in an extra day's work on
the sugar crop.
There have been years since then, Carolina Alarcon remembers, when the small church she
attends in southwest Havana would hold Christmas Mass "even if there were only two or
three people." Cubans weren't allowed to have a Christmas tree, says the mother of
two, but "I always had one anyway. I just made sure it didn't show from the
Nowadays in Havana things are thawing a little on the cultural front, and even gay men,
historically the most oppressed group in Cuba, are slowly becoming more visible on the
streets. Despite Roman Catholic doctrine, which denounces homosexuality, a bond between
gay men and the church in Cuba was forged in the early '60s, when priests and seminarians
like Havana's current Cardinal, Jaime Ortega y Alamino, were sent to
"re-education" camps along with homosexuals and other "social
deviants." Last January, thanks to conditions imposed by the Vatican as part of Pope
John Paul II's visit, religious ceremonies were held openly throughout Cuba, and Christmas
returned at last--provisionally in 1997, officially in 1998.
After 30 years, Christmas to most Cubans has come to mean, as Osmani Dayun, 18, a
technical school student, puts it, "an opportunity to eat well and drink rum with
friends." But the Catholic Church is rushing to put its stamp back on the holiday,
and many Cubans seem to be responding. On Dec. 23, nearly 1,000 people attended a
choral-singing concert held in the plaza in front of Havana's main cathedral, and 3,500
turned up there for Christmas Mass, where Cardinal Ortega exhorted them to "leave
behind the celebration of Christmas without religion."
The odds are still stacked against him. For many years, the government taught students
to distrust the church, and this has increased the number of middle-aged agnostics.
"Those who grew up before 1959 never lost their faith," explains Monsignor
Carlos Manuel de Cespedes, "and young people are coming to us now asking to be
baptized. It's the middle generation that is lost to the church."
Nonetheless, the lost generation was in evidence at Havana's celebrations. Many
nonbelievers, like Susanna Mayor, 35, a government clerical worker, attended because they
enjoyed "the spectacle, the way everything's out in the open." "I'm more or
less a believer," says Julio Colon, 24, one of a large gay contingent at the
cathedral. "But it's also a political, human-rights thing. The church and Cardinal
Ortega have supported the gay community, and we fill the churches every week."
There are still good reasons for caution. Yelena Gutierrez, who lives in the once posh
Vedado section of Havana, put up a decorated Christmas tree on her front porch. "Some
young men in our CDR"--Committees for the Defense of the Revolution are a
government-sponsored network of neighborhood watch-style groups--"saw it one night
when they were walking down the street," she says. "They started throwing rocks
at the house. So now I move the tree inside at night." She adds, "In Cuba, you
never know who won't like what."
Strangely enough, the Communist Party is also attempting to claim Christmas. The
official line is that there has been no substantive change of policy, that Christmas has
always been celebrated. Monsignor de Cespedes hints at one reason for this when, referring
to how the Cuban Christmas celebration became secularized, he says, "After the
revolution, Christmas and New Year's celebrations merged. But it doesn't matter.
Historically speaking, 30 or 40 years is nothing." "I've had the feeling that
we're waiting," Gutierrez says. "I'm not certain for what, but we're
Vatican Praises Cuba on Christmas
Wednesday, December 2, 1998; 10:06 a.m. EST
VATICAN CITY (AP) -- The Vatican expressed satisfaction Wednesday that Cuba has
decided to make Christmas a permanent holiday, saying the international community will
surely welcome the move.
Fidel Castro's government granted a Christmas holiday last year as a one-time favor to
Pope John Paul II, who visited in January.
John Paul asked that Christmas be made a regular holiday on the Cuban calendar, but
until now the government had resisted making the measure permanent.
The Communist Party recommended Tuesday that ``from this year on'' Dec. 25 should be a
holiday in Cuba, formally reestablishing a custom abolished in 1969. The proposal is sure
to be adopted by the Communist government.
Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said the announcement was received ``with
satisfaction,'' saying it ``responds to a precise desire of the pope and the Cuban church,
and I believe will not go unobserved by the international community.''
Christmas in Cuba
Dec 20 1999
by: Robin Southern
Cubans are celebrating Christmas openly at church and
at home with decorations, church ceremonies and social gatherings. Many people in Cuba
cant afford the traditional gift giving associated with Christmas in the United
States, but that doesnt matter. The celebration is out of the closet and the spirit
behind it is what matters to Cubans at a rough time in their history.
Christmas 1999 is only the third legal Christmas Cuba has celebrated in 30 years.
Originally, in honor of the Popes visit, Castro made it sound like celebrating
Christmas was an exception, but now Christmas is a permanent holiday in Cuba. Some reports
say the celebration is more like a carnival than a religious occasion. Cubans of the
generation 30 and younger have never even known Christmas. What is Christmas like in a
place that sees no snow and that hasnt allowed its citizens to acknowledge the
holiday for over 25 years?
Religion in Cuba is a curious thing. Religious allegiance was banned in Cuba in 1969, a
decade from the triumph of the revolution. After 30 years without a religious holiday or
any display of religious worship, Cubans could have lost their faith. Some people believed
that Cubans were not very religious anyway, with or without repression. However,
historically Cubans have always been spiritual, just not in an institutionalized religious
Throughout the ban, which seemed to target the biggest fish, Catholicism, Afro-Cuban
religions such as Santería and Spiritualism, maintained their following because they had
been underground since the era of slavery. When Catholicism had to go underground, the
Afro-religions unwittingly became a vehicle for Catholicism to stay alive. Other religions
were used as a method to practice Catholicism. As a result, Catholicism maintained a
presence. For example, Our Lady of Charity, the Virgin Mary, is also called Oshún, an
Orisha of the Religion of the Orishas. Therefore, worshiping a Catholic saint meant a
simultaneous pledge to both religions. In some way, though not publicly, Cubans have been
worshipping all along.
Now in its third year, Cuba celebrates Christmas publicly, a holiday that had been
banned for over a quarter of a century. After all this time not practicing, how Christmas
1999 will be celebrated in Cuba remains to be seen. But Cubans have always been practicing
-- in church, at home, or at friends homes -- their own faith and belief in
spirituality while also respecting organized religions and the principles of the state.