CUBA: Silent Nights
By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, December 24, 2000; Page E05
You have to look hard for Christmas in Cuba. It is an indoor
holiday here, advertised only with sparse strands of tinsel in the select
storefronts seen by tourists, celebrated family by family over steaming
pork and cold beer in starkly lit dining rooms across Havana.
The laziness of its arrival is disorienting to someone raised on
the inevitable five-week shopping sprint between Thanksgiving and
Christmas. No flashing lights spelling "Merry Christmas" wrap around Morro
Castle, the fortress guarding the entrance to Havana harbor. No
street-corner Santa Claus on the sea-sprayed Malecon or plastic snowmen
and sleighs in Vedado.
Growing up, I spent most Christmases with my family in Mexico. So
I am used to coconut palms instead of snowy pines in December. But when
night falls here and a city of chronic power shortages goes dark, I miss
the twinkle of lights that brighten other countries in the region I
cover. In Venezuela and Colombia, for instance, the American consumerist
trappings of Christmas appeared in mid-November.
But little money and a lack of a Christmas tradition here
have removed gift-giving and other public festivities from the
holiday. Along Boulevard de Obispo, Old Havana's answer to Fifth Avenue,
the dollars-only stores are full of people -- speaking German, French and
English. Tourists also get towering Christmas trees in their hotel
lobbies, unseen in most other public places around the city.
In this small way, the holiday helps Cuba's communist
government earn the hard currency it needs now that much of its foreign
credit is shot. Cubans, though, seem confused about how to celebrate a
holiday their government only recently permitted and still does not
"This little tree, a roast pork and three cases of
beer," says Manuel Hidalgo, who sells oil paintings of Che Guevara, Havana
street scenes and naked American models from a shop on Boulevard de
Obispo. His tree is a foot high, and his Christmas plans sound much like
those of a dozen other Habaneros, who tend to view New Year's as the
bigger event. For one, New Year's has a "revolutionary" element -- the day
in 1959 when Fidel Castro's rebel vanguard marched into Havana -- that
gives freer rein to celebration.
As a show of goodwill before Pope John Paul II's January
1998 visit, Castro gave Cubans the day off for Christmas for the first
time in nearly three decades. He had originally canceled the holiday,
hoping that an extra day of work would help bring in a record sugar
harvest (it didn't help enough). He never brought it back. Christmas
became clandestine in a country where almost half the population of 11
million people is Catholic, though only a fraction feel comfortable
practicing their religion publicly.
Today, signs of Christmas pop up in odd places. In the
300-year-old Iglesia Santo Cristo del Buen Viaje, a church near Havana
harbor, the Spartan altar blinks pagan with a lighted Christmas tree
complete with gold star. It will be there until after the Misa del Gallo,
or Mass of the Rooster, for which devout Cubans gather after Christmas
dinner in symbolic vigil for the birth.
The church, so named because it was the first place
visitors arriving from the treacherous Caribbean Sea stopped at to thank
God for their "good trip," was silent on a recent Sunday. Only a few old
women whose beliefs predate an "atheist" revolution shuffled in to
pray. Toward the back, under a dark wood ceiling, sprawls a nativity
"Five or six years ago and you wouldn't have seen any of
this," said Manuel Rodriguez, a 47-year-old night watchman and
parishioner. "But very little is permitted outside the church, only
Talking to Rodriguez and others, I began to see the
church here leading up to one of its holiest days as subversive, much as
it was to the Roman Empire after Christ's birth. Cuba's government has
occasionally felt threatened by the church's influence, and still must
approve any public display of Christmas cheer like a parade (hence, there
But there is an upside to Christmas. Rodriguez pointed
across the plaza, filled with kids playing hopscotch and kickball, to a
shop selling trees, nativity scenes and tinsel. "The state owns that
store, so it is a source of investment for them, too."
There are flashes of home. In Harris Brothers, a dollar
store on the edge of Old Havana, the cafe and uniformed elevator operators
resemble a small-scale Bloomingdale's. Tourists and Cubans lucky enough to
have jobs that pay in dollars crowd counters selling tennis shoes, liquor
But mostly it feels much farther removed from the United
States than 90 miles, not least because of the steady soundtrack of
six-string guitars, stand-up basses, horns and shouted singing that wafts
around the old town. No "Holly Jolly Christmas" mall music.
There are no signs on department store walls wishing
"Feliz Navidad," only "Feliz Ano 2001." One ad features a cartoon
guerrilla shooting a shark wearing a top hat made of the American
flag. "Hey, friend," calls out a street vendor in broken English to an
obviously non-Cuban correspondent. "Want to buy a brassiere?"
"For Christmas," says another shopkeeper, displaying in
his back bedroom a cabinet full of contraband cigars spirited out of the
factory. "But don't say a word."
I am here, far from my extended family in California and
my wife and two daughters in Caracas, as Christmas nears. Each day my
daughter opens another door of the Advent calendar her grandmother gave
her. I am not there to see it, and what I am watching here as families
arrange a night of intimate celebration makes me want to return to mine as
soon as possible.
Out of necessity, Cubans have made Christmas quiet and,
perhaps to a visitor, a little lonely. Across the Florida Straits, calm
these past few days, lives the other half of many families here. Another
Christmas coming, separated by miles of sea.
Scott Wilson is The Post's bureau chief in Caracas,
covering northern South America, the Caribbean and Central
© 2000 The Washington Post Company