December has arrived and in Cuba there will not be multiple days off from school or work. There won’t be rows of homes lit with multicolor lights. Nor will there be songs of celebration in public spaces, or signs along the road wishing passer-bys a holiday season full of joy and peace. That is how Christmas is in Cuba, and not by the will of the people.
The young Cuban exile, Rufina Velazquez, remembers those kinds of Christmases in her home town of Las Tunas. For that very reason she has decided to play the role of “Santa Claus” with children of her old neighborhood, and others, creating the initiative dubbed “Bags of Hope”. With this project, Velazquez aims to send presents to those Cuban children to add a bit of happiness during this time of the year which, in majority of countries around the world, is celebrated with lots of joy.
“I am doing this because I once was like those kids who do not have a Christmas“, tells Rufina, “my house was the only one on the block with a Christmas tree, and it was just a little pine scarcely decorated and with few presents“. Velazquez still conserves that Christmas spirit and wants to share it with her fellow Cubans. “Since I am over here in exile and since I am prohibited from going into my own country to celebrate with my family, it occurred to me to share this moment with them from a distance and give those kids something I never had“.
Rufina is the daughter of Cuban dissident Ramon Velazquez Toranzo, reason why the regime impedes her entrance to Cuba. Regardless, the young exile points out that this initiative “has nothing to do with politics, it’s just a gesture to share some love and a message of hope to those who suffer the most in Cuban society: children“.
To take part in this goodwill project, one can visit the Facebook group page for “Bags of Hope“. All sorts of donations are accepted, including toys, sweets, post cards, and candy, all of which will be collected and sent off by the 15th of December. You may also visit the PayPal page for the group, where cash donations are accepted.
The Cuban dictatorship outlawed Christmas during the beginning of its rise to power. Despite the fact that in 1998 after a visit to the island by Pope John Paul II the authorities announced that the holiday was supposedly no longer illegal, Christmas is still not publicly respected by those who rule the country with an iron fist.
Despite this, many Cubans on the island have chosen to never abandon their faith and traditions, and have continued (and continue) celebrating Christmas and noche buena (Christmas eve party) in any way they have been able to. “I remember my grandmother telling me how Christmas was celebrated before the current regime, and although she was poor at the time she tells me that it was a time of joy and festivities, where family and friends would come together“, recounts Velazquez. Perhaps it is that same memory of the past which has allowed Christmas to survive, even in the darkest depths of the censorship and violence unleashed by the dictatorship of the Castro brothers.
“For many of these kids it will be their first encounter with Christmas, the first time they receive gifts, the first time they see a card with Santa on it, and even the first time that someone talks to them about love and peace“.
The first time, perhaps, but hopefully the first of many times to come.