Two years ago, boys interested in journalism and sociology came out with a video camera and microphone in hand to ask, in Havana’s Curita park, what Christmas was and how Cubans celebrated it.
Most respondents said Christmas was the New Year’s Eve party, where they ate roast pork, congrí, cassava, apples, and drink beer and wine. An older lady said it was a family party on December 24, but she couldn’t clarify what the content of the holiday was. A teenage girl said it was the time when the Christmas tree was lit and everyone in her house had gift exchanges. One young man said that, speaking in Cuba, there was no Christmas and referred to what he saw in televisions and films from other countries about decorated streets, shops and shops full of lights, Easter flowers, nougats and ciders. And he said, “That’s Christmas!”
The pollsters also asked the questioners if they knew why in Cuba for years, Christmas had been a working day like any other and why, for several years now, with the visit of Pope John Paul II, Christmas Day (December 25) had been a public holiday again. They could not answer the question in question, but one lady merely stated, “that Christmas thing was invented by a pope.”
The last questions referred to the Three Wise Men and Santa Claus. The answers linked these characters to gifts to children, but with great ambiguity and even contradictions in what they claimed.
In the random sampling offered to us by these indators, I missed the presence of some Christian, Catholic or other denomination. Probably, a Christian’s response would have been more precise and given us a more global and complete view of the religious landscape of our people. However, Christians are not the majority of the Cuban population and the above-mentioned responses represent a not inconsiderable percentage of what Cubans think and imagine about Christmas.
The essential content of Christmas
Christmas is the Christian feast that celebrates the central condition of history: God has become man and has thus been linked to every man, of all time and place, forever. We know from the Bible that God the Father has sent his eternal Son into the world and through the work of the Holy Spirit, that eternal Son of God, God as his Father and as the Holy Spirit, has assumed the human condition within a woman: the Blessed Virgin Mary.
The son of The Virgin Mary is also the eternal Son of God. In a village in Palestine called Bethlehem, near the city of Jerusalem, Our Lady gave birth to her son. She was accompanied by Joseph, her husband, who would take care of that Child as a true father. And from the biblical accounts, we also know that shepherds who cared for their flocks near the place of birth were the first recipients of this Good News, and they ran to visit the Child on that first Christmas. The Bible also tells us about wizards from the East who, following a star, reached the Child, and offered him gifts: gold, incense, and myrrh. In the shepherds, who were close, and the sages of the East, who came from afar, Holy Scripture means that that Child we contemplated in the manger of Bethlehem with his mother, had come to save all men and women, of all peoples, of all cultures, of all races. Indeed, that Child God was called among us Jesus, a name meaning “God who saves” or “Savior”.
The Birth of Jesus, the Savior, is the true content of Christmas. And this feast produces in us feelings of gratitude, of worship, of praise, of peace. Indeed, if God has become man, then being a man or a woman is the most important thing in the world, so much so, that even God has wanted to be man!
Christmas surprises and moves, because before this event men and women had to face the sometimes faetigosa search for God. Instead, Christmas comes to tell us that it is God who seeks men. And he seeks us in the fragile and tender figure of a child, teaching us so that man should not be frightened of God, of his greatness or majesty. Because God’s true greatness is the immensity of His Love for us. Indeed, God assumes our humanity and gives us his divinity. God takes human life and gives us his divine, eternal life. To welcome this presence of Christ in the heart is the true celebration of Christmas.
Christmas time begins on the night of December 24th that we call Christmas Eve and where the “Mass of the Rooster” or Midnight Mass is traditionally celebrated. December 25th is Christmas Day. The Christmas festivities last until January 6, the day of the Wizards of the East or the Manifestation of God to all nations, to conclude the Sunday following January 6 with the feast of the Baptism of the Lord.
The external signs of Christmas
We have already clarified that true Christmas occurs in hearts, in the transformation of life. But it is no less true that the human being, who lives within him, translates and communicates it through external, palpable signs. It’s hard to tell someone we love them, for example, or appreciate their friendship, without calling them on the phone, or looking for time for a meal or a walk together. The same goes for Christmas.
Among the external signs of Christmas stand out two mainly: the Birth and the Christmas tree.
The first to “invent” the Birth, so to speak, was St Francis of Assyses, a 13th-century saint who stood out for his deep love for Christ, for his poverty, humility, love of creation and the joy of living as brothers and sisters. At Christmas 1223, Francis, who was so shocked by the poverty and simplicity of Jesus in Bethlehem, wanted to reproduce Christmas Eve Mass in a grotto that reminded him of the cave where the Lord was born. He searched for sheep, an ox, a mule, other animals and prepared a manger. There, in the midst of this overwhelming spectacle, surrounded by shepherds and simple people from their village, they celebrated Mass with enormous joy and emotion. Over time, this became famous and Christians began to develop figures of plaster, wood or other material, representing the characters that the Bible puts in the scene of the Birth of Jesus. And all those figures are placed in houses, temples, even squares or public places like the Cathedral Square here in Havana, during the days of Christmas time.
The Christmas tree is a tradition that comes to us from German culture. Christ is represented as a tree, source of life. The green color of its branches has traditionally symbolized hope. And as one who is united with Christ, he produces fruits of goodness, love, justice, and peace. we have added colorful lights and balls to the tree, to indicate that our lives are made fruitful and beautiful when we are united to Christ.
It is beautiful to see that, in many Cuban houses, people place their Christmas tree and births on these dates. In most Catholic parishes of Cuba Births are offered at modest prices to be able to place in our homes. And also postcards, where we congratulate ourselves and wish us blessings of Jesus for these holy days and for the New Year, which reaches us in the midst of Christmas time.
It is also beautiful that, around January 6, Three Wise Men’s Day, we make a gift to the children, even if it is modest. We remember those wise men of the East who brought gifts to the Child God and above all, we teach our children that in these days, we remember that God has given the best gift to men by sending us His eternal Son as Savior.
El arbolito navideño a la cubana
In Cuba today
Taking up a little history and the concerns raised in the Curita Park, we have to confess that Cuban Christians, during all times, have celebrated Christmas in our homes and in our temples. Christian families have usually made a “special” dinner on December 24 and then participated in the Rooster Mass. Around December 25, in addition to the special masses or cults that are in the different churches, we have always been able to perform allegorical plays at Christmas or concerts with birth songs also called “carols”. For several years, the Christmas concert held in Havana Cathedral and the congratulatory message of the Havana archbishop, is broadcast on national television. The concert is also broadcast, which, for the same purpose, is organized by the Council of Churches of Cuba.
In the 1960s, the Christmas holidays in Cuba were abolished, alluding to economic reasons, always fundamentally linked to the sugar campaign. In December 1997 he declared himself exceptionally holidayed on 25 December as a tribute to the visit of John Paul II in January 1998. After that visit, the Cuban Parliament agreed that Christmas Day should always be festive and non-working. All this has helped to create a more favorable atmosphere for the Christmas celebration. However, as the above-mentioned survey revealed, a parliamentary decree does not suddenly suppress ignorance, confusion and above all, the absence of human experiences that have been lived since they were young as a family and which is why they remain as values and acquisitions for the whole existence.
In Cuba we miss the absence of Christmas signs in public spaces. The very shy ones that have appeared in recent times come down to hotels or shops. In the world of private initiative and in the field of various families we also see them. While these signs are by no means the most important thing, they can help make a festive and joyful moment visible, they can send a message of hope, light, and beauty that our people need and crave. However, let us not forget, the true Christmas Light is Jesus Christ, who came poor and forgotten, modestly welcomed by the men of his time and of all times. He reminds us again, this Christmas, how much he loves us, how much he looks for us, how much we care about him. And if we open our hearts and our lives to the transformative force of their love, we will become better human beings, more supportive, more fraternal, more concerned with each other, more servants, more humble and hopeful, in a word, more full of Christ Jesus. And as that young man in the park used to say, “This is CHRISTMAS!” Ω