There’s a good reason that Cubans have never seen Santa, and it’s not because he couldn’t get a visa—nor that it’s never been known to snow in Cuba. Truth is, Saint Nick was officially banned, along with nativity scenes and all the other trappings of Christmas celebration.Cubans born after the 1959 revolution grew up more or less clueless about Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and the Three Magi.To Cuba’s young, bearded revolutionaries, Christmas was both religious and capitalist at the same time. This made for a bad combination, so Christmas was dropped as an official holiday. Christian believers soon learned that displaying crèches had costs, and Father Christmas was forced to stay home in Greenland. Cuba’s bearded benefactor had slammed the door on his ruddy-cheeked alter ego.
Cubans born after the 1959 revolution grew up more or less clueless about Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and the Three Magi. I don’t remember seeing even one Christmas tree during my first half-decade in Cuba.
Then came 1998 and Pope John Paul II’s landmark visit to Cuba—and with it a papal request to Fidel to reinstate Christmas as an official holiday.
The Cuban government even began importing fake Christmas trees from China for sale in stores. (Back then, the States owned all shops throughout Cuba.) Cubans dusted off their retro baubles, and front doors were flung open for passersby to admire huge nativity scenes featuring plastic and porcelain figures that hadn’t seen light in four decades.
Still, the years went by and Santa remained a no-show. The closest I ever came to spotting him was when I received well-wishes from my close friends (I consider them family) Julio and Rosa, who live in the colonial-era, time-warp city of Trinidad.
“Feliz Navidad! Merry Christmas! Christopher… please join us!”
Their email message included a photograph of the couple and their daughters, Carmen and María, wearing Santa hats. Julio—a “horse whisperer”—had even brought his horse into their 18th-century home: along with the couple’s two dogs, it was wearing mock antlers and a bulbous, red clown nose, like Rudolph.
The Christmas dinner tradition has virtually died out in Cuba, but Julio and Rosa are devout Catholics, and nothing unites their extended family like Christmas. Julio’s uncle, Tony, had flown in from New Jersey bearing jovial cheer and Christmas crackers. Even the local priest showed up for dinner and donned a party hat, although he declined to partake in the dancing.
The victuals were laid out on a large table on the patio. What a feast! A plump Cuban turkey had been sacrificed, as had an even plumper pig. The table was covered with local staples, including heapings of white rice, congrí, roast chicken, fried plantains, black beans, avocados, garlicky yucca, and sugar-sweetened carrots. Christmas dinner… Cuban-style.
“Christopher, you’re our guest of honor. Would you like to say grace?” Julio gestured in Spanish.
I’m an atheist, so I gave thanks from the heart for our good fortune and the precious value of the loving, closely knit people and what honor and delight I felt at having been invited to share my first Cuban Christmas with a family I’d come to cherish.
“All that’s missing is Father Christmas!” I closed.
What a surprising segue! All eyes were on me, and then, in unison, heads turned upward toward the roof.
I turned and looked up to see Santa waving from atop the metal spiral staircase that connected the patio with the azotea (rooftop). Julio’s brother Miguel was rigged out in a complete Santa costume and beard.
“Ho ho ho!” he called as he descended slowly, carrying a large sack laden with gifts on his shoulders. It was the perfect ending to a very merry Cuban Christmas.