Santa's Return

David Abel  |  12/27/1998  |  Newsday

HAVANA - Until last year, the public display of a Christmas tree here was taboo.

Now, after the Communist Party declared Christmas a national holiday, everything from modest bushes to regal pines can be found throughout the island's capital, in small government offices, in hotel lobbies and in the street-side windows of private homes.

At the home of Paco Gonzalez, a 71-year-old former guerrilla warrior who long ago drifted from Catholicism, a four-foot plastic tree features a tangle of flashing lights and a dozen shiny Santa Claus ornaments, with swatches of cotton imitating snow.

Christmas at Gonzalez once-stately five-bedroom home in Havana's upscale Vedado district is little different from Christmas in a typical American home. There is one exception, however. Beneath the faux tree Gonzalez son bought 15 years ago while studying in the former Soviet Union, there are no conspicuous boxes, no mysterious objects cloaked in wrapping paper nor anything his young granddaughters might construe as a Christmas gift. There's only an old, musty doormat with faded letters reading "Feliz Navidad," Merry Christmas in Spanish.

"This year there just isn't enough money," says the aging rebel's son, Carlos, whose salary of less than $20 a month as a physics professor at the University of Havana barely covers expenses for food and repairs to their timeworn home. "We don't like this. But the girls have to understand. It's the way things are here."

Still, the family of five spent La Noche Buena, or Christmas Eve, with cousins and friends feasting on the traditional dinner of chuleta de cerdo, slices of roasted pork; arroz con gris, rice, black beans and bits of pork; and lots of rum.

"Most people here celebrate Christmas by drinking rum, not going to church," says Gonzalez, tipping back a shot of Havana Club. "People know they don't have to work the next day. That makes it more of a party."

While clergymen such as Cardinal Jaime Ortega admit few of the 4.5 million Catholics in this once avowedly atheist country of 11 million people are regular churchgoers, the Communist government's newfound yuletide spirit represents a significant step away from its history of religious repression, he says.

Christmas was banned from the island in 1969, when Fidel Castro called on the masses to forget the holiday and spend the day harvesting sugar cane. After three decades of jailing and exiling Catholic priests, persecuting Jehovah's Witnesses and ejecting believers from the Communist Party, Castro changed course. In 1991, the Communist Party dropped its ban on allowing religious believers to hold party membership.

Last year, as a goodwill gesture before Pope John Paul II visited the island in January, Castro decreed Christmas a public holiday. But he said it was an "exceptional measure" that would not be repeated. Last month, however, the Communist Party said new machines had replaced the need for human labor to harvest the sugar cane and established Christmas as a permanent public holiday.

Still, the government has not completely abandoned its suspicion of religion. There are no Christmas trees to be found on the capital's central Revolution Plaza or other public spaces, and official newspapers even warn readers to be wary of Santa Claus.

A columnist for the weekly labor union newspaper Trabajadores recently described the white-bearded bearer of gifts as a potentially threatening symbol of "American consumerism," "cultural hegemony" and "mental colonization."

Even Ortega took a jab at Santa. In a special 15-minute broadcast on a small state radio station that plays classical music, the cardinal said Friday the return of Christmas "is a great joy for the Church and for the Cuban people."

"Now let us hope," he went on, "that it won't be the commercial tinkling of an imported Santa Claus that announces Christmas in Cuba."

The rhetoric didn't register with the Gonzalez family. The girls, Tadika, 7, and Melinda, 9, painted a rosy-cheeked Santa among red and green snowflakes on a set of their windows facing Havana's potholed Fourth Street. They also planned to build a gingerbread house brought by a friend visiting from the United States, the source of many presents here on Christmas.

Indeed, throngs of Cubans living abroad and other visitors arriving into Jose Marti International Airport last week carried suitcases stuffed with video games, dolls, Tonka trucks and the many luxuries and necessities such as medicine and diapers lacking throughout the island. Many also haggled and offered bribes in hopes that local officials would overlook the 66-pound limit on incoming baggage.

At midnight on Christmas Eve in Havana, church bells pealed in small neighborhoods and hundreds packed the pews of the recently restored San Cristobal cathedral in Old Havana. But most didn't come out to sing the melodious hymns or partake in the Eucharist - only about a half-million Catholics here practice their faith openly.

Like most Cubans on Christmas, the Gonzalezes stayed home, emptying cupboards of whatever sweets and liquor they had.

Looking out from a rear terrace onto the scattered Christmas lights dressing many Havana windows, Paco Gonzalez asked his granddaughters if they knew the meaning of Christmas.

Together, they said, "Gifts, no?"

Gonzalez took another swig of rum and smiled.

"Christmas doesn't have to be about going to church or believing in God," he said. "It's about the family getting together, and giving when they can."

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