Celebrating “La Navidad Cubana”
Christmas in Cuba is not marked by the grandiose feasts and decorations that characterize many Hispanic Christmas celebrations in other countries in North, Central and South America. But this was not always the case.
Before the fall of Batista, Christmas in the island used to be a big Catholic celebration. To make matters worse for the Catholic Church, in 1962 Cuba became an atheist country.
In Cuba Christmas was officially removed from the calendar in 1969. The reason? Fidel Castro thought this holiday was interfering with the production of sugar cane which is the main export of the island.
When talking about the celebration of Christmas in Cuba it is important to see it from three perspectives, prior to Fidel’s revolution, after Fidel’s revolution and how exiled Cubans celebrate in the U.S.
Christmas in Cuba Prior to Fidel Castro’s Dictatorship
Christmas or Nochebuena in Cuba used to be a big celebration also tied to the Roman Catholic influence of Spain in the island. Families gathered and shared a special “Cena de Navidad” at 9:00 pm. After dinner, the Catholic population -almost the entire island – attended Misa de Gallo or mass of the rooster at midnight.
The “Cena de Navidad” or Christmas dinner in Cuba included beans, plantains, rice, “mojo” which is a type of marinade with onions, garlic, and sour orange, and pork as the main dish.
Valerie Menard explains in “The Latino Holiday Book” why pork is favored by writing: “Cattle and turkeys where in short supply in the Caribbean, but thanks to the Spaniards, pork was not.”
Cubans served roasted pork, some in fancier ways than others. The preparation of Christmas dinner in Cuba was a special occasion for families to reunite and roast the pork. Families made the cooking an event; pretty much like traditional Hispanics do for Christmas.
Desserts like “turrones” or nougats, “buñuelos” or fritters, and others made of tropical fruits like coconut, guava, and sweet potato were very common at Christmas dinner. Nuts like “avellanas” or hazelnuts and tropical fruits were also part of the dinner.
Beverages like “sidra” or cider, “Mojitos” a drink made of rum, sugar cane juice, lime, carbonated water and mint, were the main alcoholic drinks for the night. Traditionally, Christmas dinner ended by drinking wine, and going to mass.
Christmas in Cuba included celebrating the birth of Christ and the Epiphany on January 6. Many Cubans displayed mangers with “Los Tres Reyes” or the Three Wise Man.
The day of the Epiphany included processions with people dressed like the Three Kings and many people following. As a tradition, children received presents from the Three Wise Men and not from Baby Jesus.
Christmas in Cuba After the Revolution
After declaring the country atheist and removing Christmas from the calendar, Castro was able to start fading the significance of Christmas. It was almost non-existent on the island until the arrival of the pope Juan Pablo II in 1996.
The December 1997 CNN article “Christmas To Be Observed in Cuba” says “Cuban President Fidel Castro has declared Christmas a national holiday this year –an unprecedented gesture of goodwill in honor of Pope John Paul II’s upcoming visit to the communist nation.” After the Pope’s visit Castro recognized the holiday again but it still remains a very low key celebration.
After the visit from the pope, Christmas in Cuba became more festive but nothing like it used to be. Also churches, which normally carry and explain many of the traditions during Christmas, are stranded for money.
On Christmas day in Cuba children attend school like in a normal day, shops, restaurants and markets stay open for regular business. Remember, many children were born after and during the revolution, and the new generations don’t know how the old generations celebrated Christmas in Cuba since they were forbidden to do it.
Small Christmas celebrations happen in the tourist areas like Varadero, Santiago, etc, all designed to please the travelers for a price. Hotels put up Christmas trees and big images of “El Ché Gevara” who is practically plastered all over the island.
For some who can afford to celebrate, Christmas in Cuba includes a special dinner made of roasted pork, plantains, beans and rice. The hotels serve the same menu while entertaining the tourists with typical music, games, and shows where national athletes participate.
Priests celebrate mass in churches and designated places like cathedrals or “plazas,” the most popular is Havana’s Revolution Square. Churches ring their bells to mark the moment of Christmas Eve becoming Christmas day. Christmas is not certainly a commercial holiday, at least for the natives.
How Cubans Celebrate Christmas in the U.S.
For Cubans who are in the U.S. Christmas is a big celebration tied to the old traditions they remember from the island they left. Let’s not forget that the first wave of Cubans that arrived in Miami in the 1960’s came from well-to-do families that had strong Christmas traditions.
For this first wave of refugees feasting, decorating their homes with Christmas trees, nativities, expecting the arrival of the Three Wise Men, and attending “Misa de Gallo” on their old island was a common practice. They brought these traditions with them when they arrived in the U.S., and passed them down to their children born here.
The second wave of Cubans refugees was in the 1980’s with the Mariel boatlift. This new wave of Cubans brought lots of diversity to the old Cuban traditions. Christmas and religion were almost forgotten for many Cubans who arrived in the 1980’s.
Interesting enough the new wave of Cubans adopted the traditions of their fellow refugees giving them a touch of their own, and now the majority of Cubans celebrate Christmas.
The “big feast” features “lechón asado” or roasted pig with a special marinade of orange/citric flavor, accompanied with “Moros y Cristianos” or black beans and rice, “tostones” or fried plantain and “yuca” or yucca with “mojo.”
To roast the pig, Cubans pass a stick through the pig to place it over the fire and cook it slowly. This process lasts the entire day and involves several family members who take turns cooking it.
For dessert Cuban-Americans favor rice pudding, “turrones” or nougat candy, and “Boniatillo” a sweet potato pudding. Many of these desserts and ingredients can be purchased in Little Havana, in Miami, which hosts the largest Cuban settlement in the U.S.
Christmas in Cuba is a celebration that has been transformed by the political landscape, and even though it is today an official holiday for everybody to enjoy, the economic and religious reality on the island may not allow that.
In a country where basic items like perfumed soap are considered luxury and where the Roman Catholic faith is working on a very tight budget it is reasonable to expect Christmas in Cuba to be a low key celebration. This is a complete contrast to the Christmas celebrations of Cuban-Americans in the U.S. where the holiday takes center stage.
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