What constitutes subversive activity in Cuba’s paraíso de los trabajadores? Among a plethora of other things, giving presents to children is enough to land you in the bad graces of the regime—or in jail. This is nothing new, of course; it’s just the latest battle in the Castro regime’s nearly six-decade war on Christmas. But now activists are fighting back.
How did this particular culture war begin? After the Cuban Revolution in 1959, the communist regime attempted to monopolize every possible sphere of life. Anything that smacked of the old regime, counterrevolutionary thought, or “petit-bourgeois backwardness” was either brought under the control of the state or abolished outright—including Christmas.
The motivations behind this move are not hard to understand: communism has always found a chief enemy in religious expression. If someone is loyal to a deity, communists reason, he or she will be disloyal to the state. Communist regimes throughout the world sanctioned (and continue to sanction) displays of religious devotion, especially holidays.
Of course, the Castros and their coterie were nothing if not wily. The first assault on Christmas was aimed at Santa Claus and swaddled in nationalism. In October 1959, just in time for the holiday season, jolly old St. Nick was deemed “a recent importation [from the US] and foreign to our culture” by Vicentina Antuña, Cuba’s director of culture. Furthermore, Antuña decreed that “decorations must be made of Cuban materials, with traditional Cuban scenes…and Cuban Christmas cards must be used instead of imported ones.” (An amusing aside noted by Time Magazine in 1959: on the same day that these Christmas ultimatums were issued, the Castros also nationalized every chicken egg in Havana and all caves containing bat feces.)
Instead of a yanqui Christmas, the Cuban government officially tolerated the celebration of Three Kings’ Day, or Epiphany. The holiday, which commemorates the visit of the Three Wise Men to the infant Christ, is widely celebrated in Latin America with celebration and gift-giving. The focal point of decoration is not a tree but a nacimiento, or nativity scene, and it is not Santa Claus but the Reyes Magos, or Three Kings, who bring children gifts.
Ten years after the Revolution, in 1969, the Christmas holiday was officially removed from the calendar, ostensibly for interfering with the productivity of the sugar harvest. Three Kings’ Day disappeared alongside it. Cuba was officially atheist from 1962 to 1991, and celebrating religious holidays became dangerous. Gift-giving was transferred to July, when families could use their industrial products ration to select toys for their children. Christmas returned only in 1997, with Cuba now bereft of its Soviet benefactor and attempting to curry world favor prior to a visit by Pope John Paul II. Christmas itself was officially re-legalized and Three Kings’ Day became more widely celebrated.
However, celebrations are still viewed with suspicion. A Three Kings parade sponsored by the Spanish embassy in 2001 was furiously denounced by Fidel as a “provocation, offense, and outrage.” And in 2013, Cuban activist groups like the Damas de Blanco (Ladies in White) and the Cuban Patriotic Union reported that security agents launched a campaign of intimidation, repression, and sabotage to disrupt any exuberant celebration of Three Kings’ Day. But the festive spirit still lives on in Cuba.
The Cuban American National Foundation, for instance, sponsors an annual toy drive to provide gifts for Cuban children on Three Kings’ Day. In 2015, they managed to raise over $30,000 and were able to provide toys to over 4,000 children throughout 14 different provinces with the help of 12 distinct civil society groups in Cuba. This did not happen without opposition from the Cuban regime—CANF activists and other participants were harassed by plainclothes agents and hired thugs, and children’s parties were dispersed by the police. Regime security forces even raided the homes of activists specifically to confiscate toys.
In the wake of Fidel’s death, his tyrannical machine has continued to chug forward at full power and the war on Three Kings’ Day continues as this article goes to print. CANF’s Karinna Alvarez tells VOC that police are stationed outside of markets to scrutinize those buying too many toys. Two homes have already been raided and over one hundred donated toys seized. Despite setbacks, though, CANF reports that celebrations have been held and gifts have been given to more than five hundred children. “Repression is something these [activists] face on a daily basis,” says Alvarez. “No matter how bad things get, they do not rest until each child on their list receives the toy and celebration they were promised. This for us, is a victory. And the determination of these organizers to bring spirit and joy to children who need it most is something to be admired.”