In my family, Christmas was the most anticipated and desired holiday of the year. For us, the holiday began on the last Thursday of November (Thanksgiving Day), with the lighting of the tree and the placement of the nativity scene, and extended through Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day all the way to the Day of the Three Kings (January 5)
The storefronts on Galiano street, Reina, Monte and the other commercial shopping streets were decked out with many natural pine trees of all sizes, brought from Canada, which filled the air with the smell of resin and wood. In addition, piles of apples and pears, which back then were available year round, came from California in wooden boxes (each fruit wrapped in a purple paper), and competed with white and purple grapes, also from California. Stands were set up on many corners offering candy apples and roasted chestnuts, the latter brought from Spain, along with wines, ciders and champagnes, and nougat in wooden boxes of different sizes, mimicking the old boxes that were used to transfer merchandise on ships, with sepia labeling burnt in the wood. There also appeared fruit from within the island, such as quince, and papaya and orange wines, nor can we forget the “Red Seal” nuts and hazelnuts, and the Arabian dates and figs. The shops and streets were decorated, colored lights were everywhere and there was much caroling, even in the more modest stores in the poorest neighborhoods- it was a holiday for everyone.
As Christmas Eve approached, there was an eruption of pigs, turkeys and guinea fowl, which constituted the main dishes for the dinners of December Eve and Christmas Day. From December 23rd onward, pigs were roasting in the ovens of bakeries everywhere, and the characteristic odor permeated the city. There was a constant movement on foot and by transport, centering around the traditional family dinner of the Cuban family, where everyone made an appearance, no matter where they lived. After dinner, everyone would attend the midnight Mass in a nearby church where, at midnight, the figure of the baby Jesus could be seen in the manger which had been empty until then.
On Christmas Day there was a lunch with the family, of roast turkey, plus whatever was left from the night before, and then a walk in the afternoon and maybe a visit to the movies or the circuses that were scattered around the city- the Ringling at Paseo y Malecón, Santos and Artigas at Infanta and San Lazaro and the Razzore Circus on the land of Orbay and Cerrato on Infanta, to name only the most important.
New Years Eve centered on night clubs, cabarets and restaurants, and parties in the existing recreational societies, with twelve bells and twelve grapes at midnight, and cups of cider or champagne, dismissing the year that was gone and welcoming the new year with a toast. New Year’s Day lunch was late, because some might need to sleep off a hangover, and consisted of chicken, salads, nuts, hazelnuts, nougat and wine, and that evening was for trying on new clothes and new shoes and promenadingonce again.
The night before three Kings was for the elders, first,in purchasing the latest toys at sale prices in the shopping areas, and then quietly placing them next to the beds of children who had gone to bed early to wait for the Kings. Three Kings Day was totally theirs, waking up early, while it was still dark, and running around until dark. Three Kings marked the end of the Christmas season.Today these traditions, forgotten(and even forbidden) for too long, are slowly beginning to resume once again, as a necessary return to our roots. The multitudinous crowd that has accompanied theVirgin of Charity during these days on her tour of the entire country is a great sign that the wind that has blown over the years may have left the trees without leaves and without fruit, and even without branches, but it could not uproot them, and that despite everything, there is a rebirth. I hope the same happens with Christmas. This season has always been, and should always be, a holiday for all.
By FERNANDO DÁMASO