Christmas in Cuba

Fidel Castro in Santa hat Fidel Castro cancelled Christmas for Cubans in 1969

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Havana correspondent Sarah Rainsford reflects on revolution, rum and the return of Christmas.

What Christmas traditions are kept in Cuba?

In 1969 Fidel Castro cancelled Christmas. He'd decreed that Cuba had to produce a record-breaking 10 million tonnes of sugar, so all efforts were to be focused on the harvest. At the time, Cuba was officially atheist, with Christians banned from the Communist Party. The holiday was reinstated in 1997 ahead of a historic visit by Pope John Paul II and, today, Cubans can celebrate publicly again.

All over Havana, there are houses festooned with flashing lights, and you can see plastic trees through many windows as well as images of snowmen and Santa Claus in his thick red coat, presumably sweltering in the Caribbean sun.

What do people typically eat and drink on Christmas Day?

The main meal is on Christmas Eve and is a traditional Cuban feast of pork, yucca, plantain, rice and beans. That's washed down with anything from wine and beer to Cuban rum. For the religious, there's then midnight mass. Presents may be given on December 25 - particularly in religious households - but it's also common to give them on January 6, when they are brought by 'Los Reyes', the Three Kings.

Sarah Rainsford Sarah Rainsford will celebrate with Thanksgiving turkey

Does religion play a major part in the celebrations?

It's far more acceptable to be openly religious in Cuba today, where the constitution now defines the island as secular rather than atheist. So for some families, the Christmas mass is important. The Communist island is full of churches, especially Catholic ones from the days of Spanish rule, but Evangelical churches are also gaining ground.

How do the people of Cuba see in the New Year?

For official Cuba, New Year is mixed in with celebration of the 1959 revolution. Families and friends usually celebrate at home with another big meal. Last year we were invited to a Cuban home for a feast of fish, meat and yucca and plenty of rum. At midnight the family sang, whilst state TV was beaming out old images of Fidel Castro and the 'triumph of the revolution'.

Where/how will you spend Christmas this year?

At home, with a mixture of Cuban and British friends. Food is exempt from the US trade embargo with Cuba - so around Thanksgiving, huge, American Butterball turkeys began appearing in the usually sparsely stocked, hard-currency supermarkets. We will attempt to cook one. Most other things we had to buy abroad on a recent trip as you never know what you can get here. Eggs only just reappeared in the shops, for example, after six weeks. But I just bought a tiny tree for 3 cuc (about $3), and there's a giant one in the lobby of our office block - so despite the sun, it is a bit Christmassy, even here.

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