Forty six years ago, in 1968, Fidel Castro ended Christmas holiday in Cuba nine years after he led a Marxist guerrilla revolution to oust President Batista. Interference with the sugarcane harvest was the official reason for the suspension.
After Castro’s revolution, Cuba’s Catholic leadership declared Catholicism incompatible with communism. In turn, Castro viewed the church as a tool of the rich and as such an enemy of the revolution. Many priests were expelled, and Christians were barred from communist party affiliation. Yet the Christian holiday survived another nine years as a paid day-off – mostly for secular reasons – although many families discretely celebrated it during the 28 years it was banned.
Cuba’s religious designation changed from atheist to secular after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, and Castro allowed Catholics to re-join the Communist party.
In 1995, the Catholic church called for greater respect for the celebration of Christmas after Cuban authorities had banned the public display of Christmas trees and nativity scenes, other than in places visited by tourists. It wasn’t until 1997 that Castro re-instated Christmas as a national holiday – a radical gesture of goodwill in honor of Pope John Paul II’s visit to the communist nation that year.
Prior to the 1959 revolution, Cuba’s religious scene was dominated by the Catholic church. Today, the Roman Catholic Church estimates that 60 percent of Cuba’s population is Catholic. Membership in Protestant churches is estimated at 5% and includes Baptists, Pentecostals, Seventh-day Adventists, Presbyterians, Anglicans, Episcopalians, Methodists, Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), and Lutherans. Other groups include Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Baha’is, and members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons).
Today, Christmas Eve remains overshadowed among Cubans by the New Years’ celebration – which happens to coincide with the day of the 1959 revolution – although many Cubans get together with their families for dinner on the night before Christmas.
The traditional Rooster’s Mass (Shepherd’s Mass) is celebrated in some Catholic churches, including the Havana Cathedral, where Cardinal Jaime Ortega presides. The Roman Catholic Church maintains eleven cathedrals in Cuba.
Many homes display Christmas trees. Among more traditional Cuban homes, the table will be set with roast pork, turkey or chicken, as well as black beans and white rice (a dish known as “arroz congri”), a salad and boiled cassava with garlic, olive oil and bitter orange.
Traditional Christmas celebration is returning to the island nation driven by the influence of Cuban-Americans living in the United States and also by the Catholic Church itself. Raul Castro, Fidel’s brother and current President of Cuba, said at a press conference earlier this year, “The pontiff is a Jesuit, and I, in some way, am too. I always studied at Jesuit schools. I read all the speeches of the pope, his commentaries, and if the Pope continues this way, I will go back to praying and go back to the Church, and I’m not joking.”