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In Cuba, Christmas makes cautious return

Island gets festive spirit as a result of reforms to Marxist state.

Much of Cuba’s holiday enthusiasm was redirected to New Year’s Eve, as that date became a kind of secular alternative to Dec. 25. Cuba celebrates Jan. 1 as the anniversary of the “Triumph of the Revolution” — the day in 1959 that Fidel Castro took power — so with Christmas diminished, many Cubans adopted New Year’s Eve as their end-of-year occasion, gathering with family to exchange gifts and share a traditional feast of roast pork, apple cider and Spanish candy bars called turrones, among other delights.

The Christmas spirit began creeping back in 1990, when Cuba removed references to atheism from its constitution, and allowed Christians and other religious believers to join the Communist Party. After Pope John Paul II visited in 1998 and met with Fidel Castro, Dec. 25 was restored as an official national holiday.

These days, one of Cuba’s most moving Christmas spectacles occurs at Havana Joe Marti International Airport, where charter flights from Miami and elsewhere arrive with teary-eyed Cubans carrying huge bundles of gifts. Entire families stand outside the terminal to greet their loved ones, as brothers and daughters and grandparents rush to embrace relatives after years of separation, in some cases.

But for Cubans who don’t have relatives coming from abroad to help them financially, or who depend on woefully inadequate government salaries, the holidays can also be a time of pain and bitterness.

“I wanted to buy my daughter a doll, but they cost $20 here,” said Alejandro Esposito, a mechanic, outside a toy store in Havana’s Miramar district. “That’s more than I make in an entire month.”

Nearby, Eglis Figueredo emerged from a department store with a miniature plastic Christmas tree, pre-decorated in silvery ornaments and plastic pine cones. Figueredo said her daughter and granddaughter were living in Peru now, and most of her extended family lived in eastern Cuba, too far to travel for the holiday. She had her church to go to on the 25th, but she said she would probably spend Christmas Eve alone.

“It’s a tough day for me,” she said. “I’ll be thinking about my daughter and my granddaughter. I hope they can come visit me soon.”