Little Christmas cheer in Cuba; Santa blacklisted
Christmas decorations are mostly to be found in the more expensive shops and tourist spots, and there is no Santa Claus waving at children on the street corner.
Santa, viewed as a symbol of capitalist consumer society, is banned from storefront displays and can only be seen in private homes.
Cubans have not taken to saying “Merry Christmas,” which is not surprising since the atheist state had the holiday crossed off the calendar from 1969 to 1997.
Most use “Happy Holidays” as their greeting and tend to see New Year’s Eve as a bigger seasonal holiday. That’s when President Fidel Castro’s government celebrates the anniversary of the revolution that brought him to power in 1959 and authorities put on street fairs with salsa music and cheap beer.
“Few people say ‘Happy Christmas.’ The young have no idea what it means,” said Carmen Vallejo, a Catholic dissident who works with cancer-stricken children.
Cuba did away with the Christmas holiday in 1969, when Castro’s government was trying to bring in a record sugar harvest of 10 million tonnes and needed Cubans to work the extra day cutting cane.
It became a holiday again in 1997, as a show of goodwill before the late pope’s historic visit to Cuba one month later. The Church got a temporary boost from the visit, but few of Cuba’s 11 million people are practising Catholics.
This year, for the first time, authorities have allowed a choir of 93 singers from 28 Christian churches to sing Christmas carols in Cuba’s main cities and broadcast a performance on state-run television.
At the top of Old Havana’s Obispo street there is a large Christmas tree lighting up the Floridita bar, where American author Ernest Hemingway drank frozen daiquiris.
But residents say there are fewer lights than last year along the colonial-era shopping street, and fewer shoppers.
Stores in Central Havana’s main shopping centre, Carlos III, are stacked with Chinese goods, from bicycles and tennis rackets to skateboards and roller blades.
Plastic toys made in China are expensive for Cubans, with some selling for $20 (11.28 pounds), more than a doctor’s monthly salary.
“There are much fewer shoppers this year. Things are very bad,” said Carlos, a parking attendant. “This is the worst year since I started here nine years ago. People have no money.”
Many Cubans supplement meagre wages with dollars sent by relatives in the United States. But the cash remittances lost 20 percent of their purchasing power after Cuba penalised the U.S. currency a year ago and revalued its own currency.
“There is no Christmas spirit, not even in the churches, because people have no prospects. In the current economic crisis they don’t have enough to get by on, let alone celebrate,” said Vallejo.
“Sometimes I feel God has turned his back on Cuba.”
Cubans got some year-end relief from price cuts ordered by the government for some imported supermarket foods, including jam, raisins, tomato puree and canned tuna and sweet corn.
Christmas cheer or not, Cubans will enjoy a family dinner on Christmas Eve, a tradition akin to Thanksgiving consisting of roast pork and “congri” — black beans mixed with rice.