A few days ago when I pulled up to the house after rounding up kids from school, there were noticeable changes on our front porch. Santa mats had been placed inside and out the front door, a cranberry red wreath hung on its hook and several poinsettiashad been placed all around the entrance way, which was spot clean. Opening the door, I smelled the divine fir needles before I saw the Christmas tree, upright in its stand, set in the far corner of our living room.
This has always been a fun holiday in my house. I remember my brother and I getting up at 4:00 in the morning to see what Santa had left for us, checking that he had eaten his cookies and finished his milk, and then passing back out, sprawled among G.I Joe’s and Hello Kitty’s, so that our parents could find us like a staged Toys-R-Us setting.
To the contrary, Fidel Castro outlawed Christmas, as well as all other religious activity and holidays, completely when he took over in 1959, naming Cuba an atheist state. Christmas also got in the way of the country’s sugar harvest festival so poof, it was gone.
Suddenly no trees, no decorations or outward signs of celebration were allowed, except in tourist hot spots, though Christmas had existed on the island for 450 years. Initiated by Christopher Columbus, who is known as Cristóbal Colón in Spanish-speaking countries, when he landed in Cuba in 1492, European traditions and customs, including Navidad,were born on the island.
Until Castro’s take over, Christmas Eve or La Noche Buenawas a highly festive event with musicand a feast, full of Cuban favorites – roasted pork, drenched in their seasoning of choice, mojo, with sides of yuca, congri (a rice and black bean mix), plantains, sidra (Spanish apple cider) and wine. Desserts were flan, rice pudding or turrones de almendra (almonds) or coco (coconut), the latter of which should be named Heaven. Creamy, shredded coconut squished with condensed milk, orange zest and vanilla, and today, enshrouded in dark chocolate and chilled. I could swim in the stuff.
There used to be midnight mass and Christmas Day was spent visiting family members, though by the time Luis came into the world this was simply something of the past.
I am told, however, it was treasured in secret by many. One Cuban friend said that growing up she had a neighbor who was a pilot and he had a Christmas tree in his living room. It was a ‘big deal’ and everyone did their best to catch a glimpse of it.