Most families in Cuba celebrated Christmas and the Epiphany ,Three King’s Day and the twelfth day of Christmas. If we didn’t get our favorite toy Christmas day we could look forward to El Día de Los Reyes Magos (Three Kings Day) and hope that whatever Santa forgot, the kings would remember on their long camel ride to our homes. Double magic!
On Christmas eve of 1958 my grandmother’s house was filled with music. My uncle Pedro Luis played the piano by ear better than many play after years of instruction and I, along with many aunts and uncles and my grandparents, stood beside the Christmas tree singing along to the beautiful melodies he played.
It was rumored that Fidel was coming soon and Batista was on the way out. There was hope for change in the country, and for our family, there was the joy of being together.
That Christmas eve was the first Christmas eve I got to stay up and have dinner with the adults. My uncle Percy toasted every member of the family with his usual jocularity, and before long everyone around the table joined in laughter. I was enjoying the moment and anticipating the gifts that would be waiting for me the next morning.
Christmas day was truly magical. I got every present I asked for. Three Kings Day would be no less special. It was the day when I always received books to read during the year; the books that had become my favorite gifts of all.
On the sixth day of Christmas, December 31, 1958, President Fulgencio Batista fled the country during the night. On the seventh day of Christmas Cubans awoke without a president. Many of the people who were close to Batista left also. Piti and her family lived very close to one of his trusted advisors. There had been gunfire. Later in the day Piti and her family walked to the advisor’s house and found the door open. When they walked in they found the table still set, the wine glasses full, food served, and no one in sight. The occupants had fled in the night.
The Cuban people knew Fidel had won and the celebrations began.
On the twelfth day of Christmas, January 6, 1959, the three kings brought me my beloved books. Among them, The Diary of Anne Frank. The three kings were not the only ones that arrived that day. It was also the day the young men, newly arrived from the mountains with their rosaries around their necks and their guns resting on their shoulders marched in procession on our street. They were the newly anointed kings bearing the gift of freedom. What a day filled with magic and hope! What a day to be Cuban!
By the first day of Christmas of 1959, a year later, things had changed. No one came to celebrate Christmas eve at my grandmother’s house. Hundreds of people had died by firing squad. The terror of Batista’s day had paled in comparison with the cruelty that our “saviors” now displayed. It was quiet in the house. No tree, no music, no magic….no gifts. My eleventh Christmas had been my last. It had been the last Christmas for many Cubans. The Diary of Anne Frank, my present on the twelfth day of Christmas the year before, had become my constant companion. Anne knew what it was like. I began keeping a diary that at times read eerily like hers. Two girls caught in the incomprehensible repression created by madmen. Anne was my new friend and inspiration for many Christmases to come. Later in life I found out that Anne’s father Otto had once applied for and been denied refuge in Cuba. The twists and turns of fate. Had he been successful, another boogeyman would eventually have haunted Anne’s dreams.
Christmas has never been the same for me, and although I don’t like to admit it, there is always a sense of nostalgia that accompanies the holidays, even when I’m surrounded by my loved ones and have everything to be thankful for. I suffer from a touch of Scroogeness or Scroogitis of spirit. A whisper of Baah Humbug I find difficult to tolerate and just as difficult to shed.
Christmas eve is almost here again. For a few hours I will experience its magic through the eyes of my eight year old twin granddaughters and for those few hours the fog of sadness will disperse. I will watch the girls play with their new toys, their beautiful blue eyes shining like the bearded men’s crucifixes shone in the sun on that sixth day of Christmas in Cuba so long ago, and I will pray that their innocence can be preserved and that their great grandparent’s sacrifice of sending their daughter alone to her new country will allow them to keep the magic in their Christmases until the day they die.
When they are eleven I will gift them with the Diary of Anne Frank. I hope that they learn the many lessons the book has to teach them, without having to become Anne’s intimate friends.
These twelve days of Christmas, treasure all that you are, all that you have, and pray that tolerance and understanding become a way of life in the world. Pray for peace, pray for the bloodshed everywhere to end, so that no more children have to lose the magic of their Christmases.
Blessings to all my friends and readers.
Thank you Yolie, for sharing so accurately and beautifully the events that gave us such great hope and cause for jubilation only to be morphed into the greatest real life nightmare, not only for each of our individual lives but for our country of birth. I must admit that I share a bit in that Scrooginess (thanks for coining the term) and I am so relieved to know that I am not the only one. Deep down in my core it is only in the religious significance of Christmas that I find meaning. I will join you in the prayers for peace and end to all bloodshed. I reciprocate your wishes for a blessed Christmas.
Thank you, Elena. Best wishes to you! The anniversary of a death is always difficult for us humans, and for many of us who were children in 1959 December 25th is Christmas- but also the anniversary of its death in our young lives. It was to be our first really free Christmas, not the nightmare it all became.
Always love your thoughtful posts to my blog.
Yolie, I also get through this Christmas season a bit like in a trance. I go through the motions, and try to share the happiness of family and grandchildren, but an occasional tear rolls down my cheek unexpectedly , and I don’t know why. Memories which remain “hidden” in the deepest corners of our souls, still haunt us after all these years, precisely because we were children and expected nothing bad could ever happen during Christmas season. The false revolutionary changes, as you recalled, made our country go from bad to worse during that period. Our illusions were halted. These days my most joyful holidays have become Halloween and Thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving is by far my favorite holiday! Gratitude, good food, and the company of family, not colored by any memories of Cuba as we did not celebrate it there. I celebrated my first Thanksgiving in Santa Rosa, CA with Rex and Anna Mae Thomas, their daughters Linda and Mary Ann, and Mary Ann’s husband John Rovai. Will always treasure that memory!
I wonder if the Pedro Pans who were in the camps and celebrated their Christmases there fared better- if it made any difference to be able to deal with those feelings then in a group of our Cuban peers. Maybe we’ll hear from some of them. Thank you as always, dear Emy, for sharing on the blog!
Well, here I am to make it four with a touch of scrooginess or scroogitis. It definitely has to do with many on the losses I have experienced during this season, first the realization of something gone terribly wrong in our island by the first Christmas after the rise of Castro. Later the loss of my beloved grandmother Angela, gone on December 20th, 44 years ago. I do not remember much that was joyful about the previous Christmas, the last one under Batista. I was thirteen and had been going for many years to spend the holidays with my father’s family in Cienfuegos It was usually a nice celebration with lots of relatives and friends. I remember my grandmother Cuca saying “Felicidades” to everybody. But in 1958 Cienfuegos had been under siege by the rebels, who were then pushed back by Batista’s soldiers, not too long before Nochebuena (Christmas Eve). Those soldiers remained in the city and everyone was very nervous because there were active rebel units in the mountains not so far from there. I think there was a curfew. Things were gloomy. My comfort was going to church. For me Christmas had always been primarily a religious observance, a time for meditation and prayer, and it became even more so after the revolution. Santa Claus was not even mentioned in my family. The big day for the children was Three Kings day. I remember the kids pouring into the streets to play with their new toys and show one another what they got. Interestingly, I remember my first Christmas in exile, in Florida City Camp, as a sweet and emotionally rich time, even if also deeply sad. A group of us older girls went with our priest to sing at two or three separate Christmas masses he celebrated in migrant workers’ camps. We brought a bit of caring and comfort with our music to those men who were also away from their families and their homeland, and they gave us their heartfelt gratitude and also their understanding. I remember that as perhaps the best Christmas in my life.
Thank you for sharing your story Tocaya. I didn’t know how tense things had been in Cienfuegos.
How beautiful to think of the Pedro Pans singing to the migrant workers also away from home! A very moving mental picture….