Segundo Falcon smiles wistfully at memories of Christmas before the revolution: fragrant pork on the table, danzon music on the Victrola, church bells clanging at midnight Mass as the statue of the Christ child was placed in the manger.
The 86-year-old man, sitting in a Havana home for the elderly, especially recalled the holiday songs, including a favorite by Cuban musician Barbarito Diez. “When will Christmas Eve return?” the refrain asks repeatedly, like an anxious child.
This year, Christmas Eve returned to Cuba.
For nearly three decades, Christmas Eve was just another night before just another workday in this communist and largely atheist country. Christmas as a holiday officially disappeared in 1969. President Fidel Castro said it was interfering with the upcoming sugar harvest.
But Christmas has been making a slow comeback since 1992, when the government began eliminating formal restrictions on religious worship. This year, with Pope John Paul II arriving for a visit next month, Christmas Eve celebrations are extra special. In honor of the visit, Castro declared Dec. 25 - for this year - an official holiday.
Roman Catholic churches throughout the country planned traditional midnight Masses - and expected standing-room only crowds. An especially large assembly was anticipated in Havana’s cathedral for a Mass to be celebrated by Cardinal Jaime Ortega.
Liberation means one thing to Castro but quite another to the island’s Catholic Church and the pope. While the church hopes to teach Cubans raised on atheism about the liberating forces of faith, Castro aims to ease a U.S. trade embargo and improve his tyrannical image.
High-stakes questions surround the visit:
Can Karol Wojtyla, the poet-philosopher-priest whose words helped topple the Berlin Wall, spark a moral miracle in Cuba as he did in his native Poland?
Can Castro gain legitimacy in the world’s eyes and an end to the U.S. trade embargo that has crippled the Cuban economy for 35 years?
Will the once-silenced Cuban church continue its progress as a force in Cuban society, gaining moral authority to stabilize Cuba when Castro dies?
Both men are focused on the future. The pope is striving to assure a peaceful transition after Castro’s death. The Cuban leader wants to preserve his legacy of social change.
“The pope could (not) care less about which Tom, Dick or Harry is going to replace Castro. He wants to avoid bloodshed and civil war,” said Tad Szulc, who has written biographies of both men. “And Castro wants to create a climate where his succession is conducted in a way so as not to totally destroy what he has done.”
Groundwork for the visit was laid long ago but culminated in November when Castro visited the Vatican and invited John Paul II to Cuba. At the time, the bearded dictator described the Holy Father as “the most extraordinary person of our time.”
Protestant churches also scheduled special services.
Holiday items such as Christmas trees and cider sold out weeks ago. Families stretched tight by the economic crisis that began early this decade are somehow finding the money to buy pork, and candies for the children.
“Christmas will be very special this year because the pope is coming,” said Francisco Fernandez, 73, religious medallions pinned to his checkered cotton shirt.
Fernandez, like Falcon, lives at the home for the elderly run by the Roman Catholic Brothers of St. John of God. At the sprawling, two-story former hospital in the nation’s capital, 11 members of the Spanish order care for 125 elderly people, most of them men.
Residents include atheists, Protestants, and practitioners of the African-influenced Santeria as well as Catholics, director Manuel Colliga said.
But all seemed to share Falcon’s fond memories of Christmases past and excitement about this Christmas. Strands of brightly colored cardboard hung from the ceiling of the foyer, reminding them that Dec. 25 was once again more than just another day.
For the religious, the decorations in the home’s chapel held the most significance.
Life-sized statues of Mary and Joseph stood in a corner with an empty manger, waiting for the arrival of Baby Jesus. Between them was an artificial Christmas tree with flashing lights.
In the chapel’s rear, shadow boxes showed scenes relating to Jesus’ birth.
Such religious images remain relatively rare in Cuba, which became officially atheist three years after the 1959 revolution that brought Castro to power.
“For a while after the triumph of the revolution, the churches were empty,” said Sergio Murgado, 76, a resident of the home. “But now the churches are filled with young people, with children. The faith was never totally destroyed by ideology, by propaganda,” the retired watchmaker said. “Christmas never went away totally either. And now, we have much faith that we will realize our dreams as Christians.”