In this episode, we cover the story of the real life Grinch who stole Christmas. For almost 30 years, Cuba’s former president, Fidel Castro, banned all Christmas celebrations in the country. His reasoning had everything to do with Cuba’s biggest food export - sugar cane. Or at least that's what he claimed...
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Britannica. (2022). Fidel Castro: Political leader of Cuba. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Fidel-Castro
Brogan, A. (2019, Dec 6). What Happens During Christmas in Cuba? Bacon is Magic. https://www.baconismagic.ca/cuba/christmas-in-cuba/
Cooper, J. (n.d.). Christmas in Cuba. Why Christmas? https://www.whychristmas.com/cultures/cuba
Cuba Journal. (2015, Nov 29). A Recent History of Christmas in Cuba. http://cubajournal.co/a-recent-history-of-christmas-in-cuba/
Fraginals, M. & Moreno, T. (2017). The Ten Million Ton Sugar Harvest (La Zafra de los Diez Millones). https://snimsib.files.wordpress.com/2017/11/ten-million-ton-sugar-harvest.pdf
Havana Bay Company, Inc. (n.d.). The Story of Christmas in Cuba. http://www.cubachristmas.com/history.htm
Medina, D. A. (2014, Dec 25). In Cuba, some still remember three decades of “silent Christmases”. Quartz. https://qz.com/316101/in-cuba-some-still-remember-three-decades-of-silent-christmases
The New York Times Archives. (1970, Dec 8). Cuba Suspends Holidays to Harvest Sugar. Corp. https://www.nytimes.com/1970/12/08/archives/cuba-suspends-holidays-to-harvest-sugar-corp.html
Reuters. (2022, May 25). Cuba's sugar harvest worst in over century, another hit to ailing economy. https://www.reuters.com/markets/commodities/cubas-sugar-harvest-worst-over-century-another-hit-ailing-economy-2022-05-25/
Rothman, L. (2015, Jan 6). When Fidel Castro Canceled Santa Claus. Time. https://time.com/3652532/cuba-epiphany-feast-christmas/
Sierra, J. (n.d.). Batista. History of Cuba. http://www.historyofcuba.com/history/batista.htm
Smith, A. (2016, Nov 28). Fidel Castro: The CIA's 7 Most Bizarre Assassination Attempts. https://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/fidel-castros-death/fidel-castro-cia-s-7-most-bizarre-assassination-attempts-n688951 Trading Economics. (n.d.) Canada Imports from Cuba. https://tradingeconomics.com/canada/imports/cuba#:~:text=Canada%20Imports%20from%20Cuba%20was,updated%20on%20December%20of%202022
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Hi everyone, I’m Becca.
S: & I’m Sarah! And you’re listening to Unsavory.
Today we are covering the story of the real life Grinch who stole Christmas. It’s not a crime per say, but definitely a scandal if you love Christmas as much as we do. For almost 30 years Cuba’s former president Fidel Castro banned all Christmas celebrations in the country. And his reasoning had everything to do with Cuba’s biggest food export. Or at least that's what he claimed.
S: I have never heard of this! 30 years of no Christmas? That is some serious Grinch behavior.
B: The Grinchiest! Having your right to religious expression and right to celebrate a holiday taken away from you is awful. And this happened within our lifetime. Like we were 8 years old when Christmas in Cuba was reinstated.
Have you ever been?
S: Yes, I went to resort with some friends when I was like 21 and had a wonderful time thanks to the all-inclusive drinks. It was beautiful!
B: Where did you go?
S: Cayo Coco!
B: I went with my family when I was in grade 12. It was my first tropical vacation and my first sunburn ever. We stayed in Varadero and did day trips to Havana. I loved it. Havana is something special.
B: Are you ready?
S: Let’s do it!
Shout out to my sources for today’s episode which are all listed in the show notes at unsavorypodcast.com. I used a Time Magazine article written by Lily Rothman, an article in Cuba Journal, some New York Times Archives, and a personal blog by Ayngelina Brogan.
So for a lot of us, Christmas usually means a few days off from work, family time, gift-giving and lots of delicious food. But for decades, a Latin American country with deep roots in Catholicism was forbidden from celebrating the holiday.
Christmas trees and decorations were banned, religious services were canceled, citizens had to go to work and could not even acknowledge the presence of Santa.
S: No Christmas trees? That’s just cruel. My apartment is 200% more cozy with my Christmas tree up. How early do you think is too early to put your Christmas tree up?
B: OK so my sister used to work in retail and she said that the “retail rule” claims that anytime before Remembrance Day is too early. So let November 11th have its moment and feel free to put up your tree on the 12th. So I have kinda been following that ever since. When did yours go up?
S: I agree with that for sure but I think any time post Remembrance day is fair game. This year mine went up the weekend of the 26th!
OK, in order to understand what led to the cancellation of Christmas in an otherwise Catholic country, we have to look at the revolution that took place in Cuba in the late 1950’s.
As I have said, Cuba’s religious scene was predominantly Catholic pre-revolution. And there was a lot of Spanish influence in their traditions and customs since the country was under Spanish rule for a number of years. Christmas celebrations also reflected this. On Christmas eve there would be danzon music, a large meal often consisting of a whole roasted pig with rice, plantain and black beans. They would drink wine and Spanish apple cider called “sidra”. Then head to midnight mass. Christmas day was then usually spent visiting family and friends.
S: That sounds like a perfect day
Agreed. I want to get my hands on some of that sidra.
So in Cuba, there wasn’t much emphasis on gift-giving as the area had yet to be impacted by the commercialization of the holiday as we saw in the United States, Canada and parts of Europe at this time (Havana Bay Company, Inc., n.d.; Cuba Journal, 2015).
In the 1950’s, everything changed. Cuba’s former president Fulgencio Batista was a military man and politician. He was elected as president from 1940 to 1944 but then started his life as a dictator a few years later when he canceled the upcoming election and seized power. From my understanding, this decision was heavily backed by the United States. Cuba then became profitable for American businesses, as well as for organized crime. Havana even became known as the “Latin Las Vegas” with new Casinos and a new international drug port.
Many Cubans did not trust Batista, for obvious reasons, but opposition to his power was often violently handled. Tensions grew and people began to fear the government (Sierra, n.d.).
Enter Fidel Castro, a young and energetic lawyer and revolutionary. He was actually planning to run for office in the 1952 election before it was hijacked by Batista. When legal means against Batista’s dictatorship were not effective, Fidel Castro organized a rebel group that attempted to attack the Batista government and military. Eventually, it was successful and in January of 1959, Batista fled Cuba.
Castro then weaseled his way into political power, making promises of reform, the reinstatement of civil and political liberties and an honest government. But as the story goes, once he achieved leadership, he began to instate more radical policies motivated by his anti-American rhetoric.
He deemed Cuba to be an atheist nation, stating that communism and Catholicism could not coexist. He saw religion as a tool used by the rich and therefore an enemy of his revolution.
He then seized many of the existing American businesses and agricultural estates, leading to tensions between the two countries (Britannica, 2022; Cuba Journal, 2015).
At this time, in 1959, Castro’s government also kiboshed Santa Claus, with the director of culture stating that he is “a recent importation [from the U.S.] and foreign to our culture.” Cuban children were only to expect presents from the Three Wise Men, and decorations depicting reindeer or Christmas trees were no longer allowed. Any decor had to be made of Cuban materials depicting only traditional Cuban scenes. This meant that the palm tree became the new evergreen fir (Rothman, 2015).
S: Okay, so it’s not so much that he canceled Christmas, but he wanted to stop the Americanization of Cuban Christmas?
As of 1959, yes. He took somewhat of a progression approach. You’ll see.
In 1960, Castro made a trade agreement with the Soviet Union, pushing the US to sever diplomatic relations the following year. This led to the The Bay of Pigs Invasion where the American government (aka the CIA) tried to overthrow Castro’s new communist government. It was a brief invasion effort that ultimately failed to Cuba’s armed forces (Britannica, 2022).
The CIA allegedly even tried to poison Castro with cigars spiked with botulism. This also failed and as you can imagine, it did not help mend the relations between the two countries. // This was actually only one of many assassination attempts on his life, many of which were allegedly planned by the CIA. And it’s estimated that no fewer than 634 assassination attempts were made to kill Castro (Smith, 2016).
S: What?! All because Cuba severed ties with the United States?
Well, there was also the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 I believe. So there were lots of attacks back and forth really. But the poisoned cigar incident was BEFORE the Missile Crisis.
The ten million harvest
Anyways, the severed ties between Cuba and the United States also impacted Cuba’s booming sugar industry. At this time, sugar made up 80% of Cuba’s foreign exchange earnings. Cuba previously exported most of its sugar harvest to the US, at one point making up about 60% of all sugar imports in North America. But the US pulled out of all trade agreements, including their sugar agreement in 1960, and the industry was left to find new sugar importing countries…which actually didn’t seem like it was that hard. So they signed a trade agreement with the Soviet Union within the same year.
And we actually talk much more about the Soviet Union in our Holodomor episode, if you want to check that out.
After a few years of trying to diversify crops and become more industrialized, the Cuban government realized it wasn’t working as they had hoped. In 1963, they decided to dedicate more effort back to the sugar industry, claiming that they would increase productivity to hit a ten million ton sugar harvest by 1970. This is literally what is referred to as the ten million harvest or “zafra de los diez millones” (Fraginals & Moreno, 2017).
One barrier that they had was that the most productive time to harvest also fell over Christmas. And people taking time off during this time meant that the harvesting process wasn’t as efficient as it could be.
S: I see where this is going…
Christmas is canceled
In 1969, Fidel Castro announced that Christmas would be pushed until July. In order to meet the 10 million ton goal he had set, they would have to harvest throughout the holiday season. So Christmas was postponed that year.
Unfortunately, Cuba didn’t make the 10 million ton sugar quota that year. They only made it to 8.5 million tons - 1.5 million short of the goal. But it wasn’t for lack of effort. It is estimated that over 350,000 people worked as cane cutters that year. They friggin even worked through Christmas. And it was still one of the best sugar harvests Cuba had ever seen. So definitely still something to be proud of (Fraginals & Moreno, 2017).
However, I don’t know if this was a form of punishment or what, but the next year, in 1970, Fidel Castro held a press conference in Havana that lasted over three hours. In it he stated that Cuba could “not afford the luxury of having fiestas” during sugar harvests. Period. And with that he officially stole Christmas. It was no longer a paid holiday and it wasn’t allowed to be publicly celebrated. The only entities allowed to use decorations were hotels so that they could satisfy tourist customers. This period of time is commonly known as Las Navidades Silenciadas, or The Silent Christmases (The New York Times Archives, 1970).
S: Wow, that’s heartbreaking. & once again I’m shocked at how I had never heard of this?!
I am going to read you two quotes I found from two people who lived through the silent Christmases. They didn’t share their surnames in the interviews - I think to protect their families, which is so wild because they’re just talking about Christmas!!! One quote, from a person named Abel states “my generation, those of us who grew up in the 60s, lived with the myth of Christmas created for us in the stories that our grandparents shared with us.” Which is nuts.
Some other families continued to celebrate in secret. This quote is from Angela: “I remember my Uncle Antonio gave us a plastic old broken Christmas tree which we kept hidden. I don’t know how he got it. We enjoyed the tree anyway, even if we couldn’t light it at night.” (Medina, 2014).
S: That’s so sad. I have so many wonderful childhood memories from the Christmas season and it’s so unfair that the government could just ban Christmas and generations of kids would be stripped of their own holiday memories. All so that Cuba could meet it’s sugar quota…
The Pope saves the day
As I said in the intro, the silent Christmases lasted 30 years!! And the whole thing is resolved in the strangest way.
So in 1991, we had the collapse of the Soviet Union which also meant that communism took a hit as well. The religious designation of Cuba transitioned from atheist to more secular and citizens were allowed to practice religion openly again. But it wasn’t until 1997, when Pope John Paul II announced he was visiting Cuba the upcoming year that Fidel Castro reinstated Christmas for that one year only.
S: Gotta pull out all the stops for the pope!
I’m not sure whether he forgot to cancel it again or if he just had such a blast that he pretended to forget, but after the Pope’s visit in 1998, Christmas became a national holiday once again (Cuba Journal, 2015; Medina, 2014). And I really like to think of Pope John Paul as Cindy Lou Who in this Grinch parallel.
Christmas in Cuba today
Today, Christmas continues to be celebrated, but for many it is still considered somewhat of a new holiday. Gift-giving or the commercialization aspect isn’t as big of a deal as it is in other areas of the world. And the focus is more on family time and food, as it should be.
S: Yes I love that, especially in this economy!
Christmas eve is called “Nochebuena” which literally means “the good night”. And this is usually when families have their big meal and gathering. The traditional main is still the whole roast pig, usually served with plantains, black beans, cassava, rice and veggies. Then dessert usually consists of rice or sweet potato puddings and buñuelos (boo-new-el-ows), which are like little Timbit donuts.
Dinner is often followed by midnight mass. And there are these carnival-like street parties that happen beforehand. The legend is that in the 1800’s there was a priest in one of the towns who thought that people might fall asleep for church after their big Christmas meal. So he assembled some kids to run through the streets and make noise by banging pots and pans to keep everyone awake.
This parade and festival is now called Las Parrandas. It usually starts a few hours before midnight mass and it has evolved to include music, dancing, costumes and even fireworks (Cooper, n.d.; Cuba Journal, 2015).
The largest celebration of the season continues to be New Year’s Eve though, which was never canceled as it wasn’t tied to religion. It also coincides with the day of the 1959 revolution (Brogan, 2019).
Lastly, the sugar industry is still a big part of the Cuban economy, especially when it comes to rum. However, in recent years, production has decreased. Not because of holiday celebrations, but because of a lack of inputs needed, like fertilizers, pesticides, fuel and machinery (Reuters, 2022). They do still export other food products like fish and seafood, vinegar, coffee, and dairy products, which were all bigger Canadian imports last year (Trading Economics, n.d.).
And that’s the story of how the grinch stole Cuban Christmas and how they got it back.
That was awesome, Becca! And I still I can’t believe I had never heard about the Silent Christmases of Cuba. And Happy Holidays everyone!
We’ll be back on boxing day.