Cuba prepares for Christmas with early gift from Obama

AFP , Wednesday 24 Dec 2014

File Photo: People embrace while celebrating the restoration of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States, outside of the Cuban Embassy in Santiago, Chile, Wednesday Dec. 17, 2014 (Photo: AP)

Cubans prepared Wednesday to celebrate Christmas, a resurgent holiday banned for 38 years by the communist government, with an early gift from US President Barack Obama: a historic rapprochement.

Across the island, houses, restaurants, supermarkets, hotels and state-run stores have put up Christmas decorations, embracing a holiday eliminated by Fidel Castro soon after he came to power in the Cuban Revolution in 1959 and declared Cuba an atheist state.

"El Comandante" restored Christmas in 1998 after a landmark visit by pope John Paul II.

After an initially hesitant revival, the Christmas spirit is once again booming on the island.

"Christmas was a very deep-rooted tradition in Cuba. It was interrupted for 38 years, which is no small thing, and yet it made a comeback," said the secretary of Cuba's Conference of Bishops, Jose Felix Perez.

In Havana's old city, Santas brave the Caribbean heat in bushy white beards and red suits to hand out restaurant flyers alongside Mrs Clauses wearing decidedly skimpier red outfits -- a scene that would have been unthinkable under Fidel.

On the streets of the capital, the dashboards of cars are decked out with Santas, wreaths and mini Christmas trees.

Less playful decorations adorn the gates and courtyards of foreign embassies and the US interests section, set to regain its status as an embassy under last week's watershed announcement by Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro, who took over from his big brother Fidel in 2006.

The thawing of the two countries' Cold War animosity has raised many Cubans' hopes for an economic revival in a country scarred by the "special period" of hunger and shortages in the 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

This year, Perez said, "everything the two presidents announced is giving people hope that their lives will get better and there will be greater understanding."

In this country where Catholicism has long co-existed with local traditions that draw on both Christianity and African religions, state-run stores are brimming with Christmas gift baskets and restaurants and hotels are offering sumptuous Christmas dinners.

At the Ambos Mundos, where the great American writer Ernest Hemingway once lived, the four-course meal costs $40 -- twice the average monthly salary of around $20.

"Before there were no Christmas decorations. All this is totally new," a Latin American diplomat told AFP.

New Year's was long celebrated as the main holiday in Cuba, bolstered by the revolutionary significance of the date: January 1, 1959, is the day Castro's forces ousted dictator Fulgencio Batista.

Starting in 1960, December 25 was declared a working day.

Christians celebrated in secret, hoping to evade detection by the Revolutionary Defense Committees (CDRs) deployed across the country.

Even after the holiday was restored, Christmas celebrations were muted until Fidel handed over power amid a health crisis.

In 2010 the Cuban government opened talks with the Church, which led to the release of 130 political prisoners and the return of Church buildings confiscated in the 1960s.

Later that year the main architect of the detente, Cardinal Jaime Ortega, celebrated Cuba's first Christmas mass since 1959 inside a prison.

Today, Cuban bishops broadcast Christmas messages on television.

In a further goodwill gesture toward the Church, Raul Castro also restored Good Friday as a holiday when pope Benedict XVI visited the island in 2012.

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