A Tale of Two Santas in Havana

 Our children's first encounter with Santa this season. 

Our children's first encounter with Santa this season. 

It was a tale of two Santas. On Tuesday, we attended a Christmas caroling party with our American friends. While a couple of dozen kids were in the midst of singing Deck the Halls, a bearded man in red strolled into the room, ringing his bells. “Santa!” all the kids exclaimed. “Do you have another carol for me?” he boomed. My four-year-old daughter, for the first time in her life, wasn’t terrified of the hefty man in all his getup. She was one of the first to jump into his lap and expand on her wish list. I was surprised at how patiently my two-year-old son waited his turn. After the kids were done, Mrs. Claus handed them each a candy cane, and they dashed into the dining area for cookies and egg nog.

 Our encounter with a Cuban santa ... ( with no boots, as my daughter pointed out). 

Our encounter with a Cuban santa ... ( with no boots, as my daughter pointed out). 

The next night, we went to a party that was again interrupted by Santa — but this time, his Cuban version. I’d warned the kids that this Santa might look a little different from the one we’d seen the night before, and sure enough, he was a little scrappier and spoke in rapid-fire Spanish. “Ho, ho, ho, ho, ho…. Estas portandote bien? Estas haciendo tu tarea?” he asked as he sat down in his armchair. “Have you been behaving yourselves? Have you been doing your homework?”  

My four-year-old daughter tugged at my arm urgently and earnestly. “He’s not real,” she whispered. “Why don’t you think so?” I whispered back. “Because he’s not wearing shoes,” she said, pointing. And sure enough, in place of black boots, all he had were white socks. 

Shoes can be difficult to find in Cuba. And it was frankly a miracle that we were able to see Santa in Cuba at all. He doesn’t exist here. Up until a few decades ago, Cubans used to celebrate Three Kings’ Day, a holiday that is fuzzy in the minds of most Americans. It occurs on the evening before January 6th and in place of Santa, the three wise kings of Bethlehem ride on camels and bestow gifts to little children everywhere. Cuban kids used to write notes with their wish lists and put them under their beds. Instead of milk and cookies for Santa, they’d leave grass and water for the camels. 

After the Revolution, the tradition continued, but it was Fidel instead who gave the children their presents, as part of a once-grand rationing system that once existed. Boys and girls received three gifts each per year, with boys receiving things like toy cars and girls getting items like dolls. One of my older Cuban friends remembers the one year, the doll came from China, with her black hair pulled in a bun and a green dress that my friend called a “kimono.”

But eventually, that gift-giving holiday faded, because of Fidel’s battles with the Catholic Church and anyways, it was too difficult to provide gifts to every child across the island. Cuban kids these days don’t expect gifts around Christmas time. And while Christmas Day is officially a day off for most Cubans, nothing really happens that day. Many celebrate La Noche Buena, Christmas Eve, at home quietly with their families over a meal of carne asada and rice and beans. The most important holiday of the year happens on the last day of December — El Fin de Ano, which has become a family holiday and a patriotic celebration rolled into one, since Fidel officially took over Cuba on New Year’s Day, back in 1959. 

Even if Christmas isn’t widely celebrated in Cuba, I believe it’s important for my family to keep up our American traditions. Thus, I was more than happy to take my kids to see Santa twice in two days. And I even lugged a cookie-making project with us to the second party. I skipped the tradition of making gingerbread, since my kids (and most other kids, I imagine) prefer sugar cookies. To give them the right look, I added whole wheat flour to the dough and cut them into the shape of gingerbread men. In place of royal icing, I brought out my cream cheese frosting, which my housekeepers are able to make in large batches with buckets of cream cheese that I occasionally source at one market in Havana. In my pantry, I hunted down some green California raisins, dried red cherries, and butterscotch chips for decoration. 

At the party, the cookie decorating activity faced a lot of competition. The parents had pooled together to provide a puppet show with Kike Angel Diaz, one of Cuba’s most famous performers, who, later that evening, played Santa. Kids rode through the property on ponies, hired especially for the party, chased pet peacocks, and jumped in two bouncy castles set up in the expansive yard. But the kids did manage to stop whatever they were doing when the cookies appeared and made little works of edible art.  And while the cookies couldn’t compete with the Cuban, bootless Santa Claus’ performance, they did taste pretty good. 

Check back next week for the Sugar Cookie and Cream Cheese Frosting recipes.