Cuba Declares Christmas a Holiday

By John Rice
Associated Press Writer
Tuesday, December 1, 1998; 8:55 p.m. EST

HAVANA (AP) -- Christmas is coming to Cuba this holiday -- officially, that is.

The Communist Party used the entire front page of Cuba's only daily newspaper, Granma, to recommend Tuesday that ``from this year on'' Dec. 25 be a permanent holiday in Cuba. Adoption by the Communist government is assured.

Ordinary Cubans -- whether religious or not -- welcomed the news, which re-establishes a custom the communist government abolished in 1969.

``It makes me very happy,'' said Marta Soler, a secretary who came to the Our Lady of Carmen church to buy nativity figurines.

``It's another day to rest. ... You can share it with the family,'' said Judith Arango Rodriguez, 26.

Cuba's Roman Catholic Church issued a statement declaring it ``highly values this gesture'' and expressing confidence that ``the path of opening of Cuba'' would lead to ``causes for joy, unity and hope for the Cuban people.''

It said re-establishing the holiday was ``an act which does justice to our Christian-based culture.'' It also came after a request by Pope John Paul II, who visited Cuba in January.

The government granted a Christmas holiday last year as a one-time favor to the pope, but it had balked at declaring the measure permanent.

Despite increasing tensions between Cuban churches and a government that declared itself atheist in 1962, Christmas remained an official holiday in Cuba until 1969, when the government was frantically throwing much of the country's resources into an unsuccessful effort to harvest 10 million metric tons of sugar.

The government argued that holidays interfered with the harvest and also canceled the New Year's holiday that year. The New Year's holiday soon returned, but Christmas remained a day of work.

On Tuesday, the Communist Party said mechanization had reduced the need for manpower in the sugar harvest.

In its declaration, the party insisted that the abolition of the holiday in 1969 ``was not inspired by any anti-religious sentiment'' and argued that the Cuban revolution had been far easier on churches than revolutions in France, Russia and Mexico.

However, the government at the time was avowedly atheist and often clashed with the Catholic hierarchy.

Christians were barred from being members of the Communist Party and from holding many sensitive jobs. Even followers of Afro-Cuban religions were considered unreliable, according to official documents.

Displaying a Christmas tree at that time could lead to conflicts with neighborhood Communist Party officials.

In 1976, Cuba's constitution guaranteed freedom of religion and in 1991, the Communist Party dropped its ban on religious believers. A year later, Cuba declared itself a secular rather than an atheist state.

Restrictions on believers have fallen away and church-state relations have grown steadily warmer, capped by the papal visit.

This year, even state stores were selling plastic Christmas trees and ornaments.

Tuesday's declaration ``is a signal of an opening, a rapprochement or reconciliation with the churches,'' said Josue Ladron de Guevara, 27, a Methodist minister from the eastern city of Santiago who was attending a religious workshop in Havana.

``This is a dream that we have had for a long time,'' he added.

In its statement, the party praised churches for condemning the U.S. embargo of Cuba, for sending aid and for speaking out in favor of social justice around the world.

But it also alluded to old frictions, saying that ``counterrevolutionaries'' had long tried to create ``divisions and conflicts between religion and revolution.''

It noted that ``some members of religious institutions'' -- a reference to Catholic leaders -- had helped in the ``monstrous kidnapping'' of some 15,000 Cuban children who were sent by their families to the United States in the early 1960s to save them from communist education in Cuba.

Arguing that abolishing the holiday had been strictly an economic decision, the party said northern industrial countries were ``virtually covered in snow'' at Christmas and could afford to grant a holiday, while tropical countries such as Cuba were in the midst of crucial harvests.

Most of Cuba's tropical neighbors, however, have always granted Christmas holidays.

© Copyright 1998 The Associated Press