Christmas Eve; Havana
Dateline HAVANA, December 24, 2018: LARGE BEARDED MAN DISTRIBUTES PACKAGES TO CUBANS.
In another time, it would not be surprising to read a headline like this in an edition of Granma, the official newspaper of the Communist Party of Cuba. Although he was an authoritarian, Fidel Castro wanted to be seen as benevolent to his people, the giver of all things. But Fidel died in 2016.
It is Christmas Eve 2018, and despite the fact that another large bearded man reputedly travels the globe this night giving toys to children, I assume that Santa is still on the no-fly list here in Cuba. So imagine my surprise as I stand on a corner in Habana Vieja and, “what to my wondering eyes did appear, but”...uh...two bicitaxis tricked-out in the regalia of Spain's Fútbol Club Barcelona and propelled by elf-shirt-clad riders.
The bicis skid to a stop, Papá Noel leaps out, hands soccer balls to two children that happen to be nearby, jumps back in next to an extraordinarily beautiful Señorita Claus, and down the street they fly. I have just enough time to make a couple of exposures before they are a block away. From personal experience I surmise that this drive-by gifting is done of necessity so that the bicis, elves, Santa and his Señorita are not overrun by other kids who are descending on the scene.
This Cuban riff on Clement Clarke Moore's classic poem illustrates how much the country is changing. Fidel made Santa persona non grata in 1959, more or less accusing him of being an illegal immigrant from the United States. His reindeer were unwelcome as well. Decorations had to portray traditional Cuban scenes, and “Yankee” Christmas trees were forbidden in lieu of Cuban palms. Castro's Grinch-like decree lasted until just before Pope John Paul II visited the island in 1998.
When I first began traveling here I noticed very muted acknowledgments of the holidays, mostly limited to small, artificial trees in a corner of people's houses. But as with other things that were once banned, each year the celebrations become more open and festive. Strings of Christmas lights adorn balcony railings. Many of the people whose job is to stand on the street to entice customers into restaurants do so while wearing Santa hats, and the restaurants are decorated in ways that Fidel would not have approved of in 1959. The ubiquitous street bands incorporate a rendition of “Feliz Navidad” into their set lists.
I enjoy a traditional Christmas Eve gathering for drinks and snacks with some Cuban friends, then have a great dinner at my favorite restaurant. Later I return to my apartment and sit on the rooftop with a glass of rum, listening to the revelry below.
Christmas Day comes to life a little more lethargically than do most mornings here. The roosters crow more softly than usual. The bakery across the street is open for business but the flow of customers is a little slower today than on others. The holiday seems to have settled back into just another day here in Cuba, perhaps a metaphor for the ebb and flow of change here.
As I finish writing this story I learn than the US government is changing the conditions of visas for Cubans wishing to visit the US, ostensibly to mirror Cuban visas for US citizens. But an unintended consequence is to make travel more difficult and expensive for the nascent Cuban entrepreneurs who regularly travel to the US to buy many of the supplies they need for their paladares and casas particulares. I think that a more thoughtful and consistent approach to relations between our countries might ferment democracy here, and is the best gift we could give the Cuban people.