How Cuba Restored Christmas After Three Decades of Ban

Christmas is a time of joy and celebration for many people around the world, but for Cubans, it has a special significance. For 30 years, from 1969 to 1998, Christmas was banned in Cuba by the late dictator Fidel Castro, who declared his government atheist and wanted to eliminate any religious influence. However, in 1998, Castro changed his mind and reinstated Christmas as a public holiday, thanks to the intervention of Pope John Paul II, who visited the island nation in January of that year. This article will explore the history and impact of Cuba’s Christmas ban and restoration, and how Cubans celebrate the festive season today.

The Christmas Ban: A Political Move

Fidel Castro came to power in 1959, after leading a revolution that overthrew the US-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista. Castro aligned himself with the Soviet Union and adopted a Marxist-Leninist ideology, which opposed any form of religion. Although Cuba had a predominantly Catholic population, Castro suppressed the church and its activities, confiscating its properties, expelling its clergy, and restricting its access to the media and education. In 1969, Castro abolished the paid Christmas holiday, claiming that he needed everyone to work on the sugar harvest, which was vital for the country’s economy. He also banned any public display of Christmas symbols, such as trees, decorations, and nativity scenes. Cubans who wanted to celebrate Christmas had to do so in secret, risking persecution and imprisonment.

Castro’s Christmas ban was not only motivated by his atheism, but also by his desire to assert his independence from the US and its allies, who were engaged in a Cold War with the Soviet bloc. By rejecting Christmas, Castro was rejecting the cultural and political influence of the West, and showing his loyalty to his communist allies. He also wanted to create a new Cuban identity, based on revolutionary values and national pride, rather than on religious traditions.

How Cuba Restored Christmas After Three Decades of Ban

The Christmas Restoration: A Diplomatic Gesture

Castro’s Christmas ban lasted until December of 1997, when he announced that he would reinstate Christmas as a permanent public holiday, starting from 1998. This decision was made in anticipation of a visit by Pope John Paul II, who was scheduled to arrive in Cuba in January of 1998. The Pope had requested Castro to allow Christmas celebrations as a sign of goodwill and respect for the Cuban people’s religious beliefs. Castro agreed, hoping to improve his image and relations with the Vatican and the international community. He also saw an opportunity to attract more tourists and foreign investment to his isolated and impoverished country.

The Pope’s visit to Cuba was historic and unprecedented, as it was the first time a pontiff had set foot on the island. The Pope was welcomed by hundreds of thousands of Cubans, who lined the streets and filled the squares to see him. The Pope celebrated several masses, met with Castro and other officials, and spoke to the Cuban people about human rights, democracy, and social justice. He also called for an end to the US embargo on Cuba, which he considered unjust and harmful. The Pope’s visit was widely seen as a success, as it opened a dialogue between the church and the state, and between Cuba and the world. It also sparked a revival of religious faith and freedom among Cubans, who were able to express their spirituality and culture without fear.

The Christmas Celebration: A Cultural Mix

Today, Christmas is a popular and festive occasion in Cuba, where people of different faiths and backgrounds join together to celebrate. Cubans have their own unique traditions and customs, but they also borrow some elements from other countries and regions, especially from Spain, Africa, and the US. Some of the common features of Christmas in Cuba are:

  • Nochebuena: This is the name given to Christmas Eve, which is the main event of the season. Families and friends gather to share a lavish meal, usually consisting of roasted pork, rice, beans, plantains, salad, and desserts. The pork is often cooked in a large pit, and the preparation and cooking can take hours or even days. The meal is accompanied by music, dancing, and singing, creating a lively and cheerful atmosphere.
  • Las Parrandas: These are festive parades and competitions that take place in some towns, especially in Remedios, where they originated in the 19th century. The town is divided into two rival neighborhoods, which compete to create the most spectacular and elaborate displays of lights, fireworks, costumes, and floats. The festivities start at 10 p.m. on Christmas Eve, and last until dawn, when the winner is announced. The parrandas are a way of honoring the patron saint of the town, and also of having fun and showing creativity.
  • Epiphany: This is the day when Cubans exchange gifts, rather than on Christmas Day. Epiphany, also known as Three Kings Day, commemorates the visit of the Magi to the baby Jesus, bringing him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Children write letters to the Three Kings, asking for what they want, and leave their shoes by the door or window, along with some grass and water for the camels. The next morning, they find their shoes filled with presents. Epiphany is also a time to share a special cake, called rosca de reyes, which has a small figurine of Jesus hidden inside. Whoever finds the figurine is supposed to host a party on February 2, the day of Candlemas.

Christmas in Cuba is a celebration of faith, family, and culture, which reflects the diversity and resilience of the Cuban people. After three decades of ban, Cubans have reclaimed their right to celebrate their heritage and identity, and to enjoy the spirit of the season.


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