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December 14, 2023

When Christmas Was Kept a Secret

Armando Lucas Correa is the author of the international bestseller THE GERMAN GIRL; THE DAUGHTER’S TALE; and THE NIGHT TRAVELER, for which he was awarded the Cintas Foundation Creative Writing Fellowship. His latest novel, THE SILENCE IN HER EYES, releases on January 16th. This bold and suspenseful psychological thriller is about a young woman with a rare neurological condition who is convinced her neighbor is going to be murdered. Armando grew up in Cuba with his sister, and there was a long period of time when Christmas and Three Kings Day were banned in that country. However, as he explains in this powerful piece, that did not stop his grandparents from continuing to celebrate the holidays.


I can't help it. Every time Christmas approaches, I feel like I am committing a crime by celebrating the holiday. I know I’m not actually a criminal, but it’s as if trauma from my childhood Christmases has been imprinted in my DNA.

I was born in Guantánamo, but I grew up in Havana, Cuba. I have vivid memories from when I was about five or six years old and we moved to the capital. In December, our house in the Vedado neighborhood was decked out with garlands and Christmas decorations. Poinsettias, red and white, bloomed in our garden. Our celebrations revolved around Christmas Eve, a dinner where there was always pork, rice with black beans, and nougat for dessert. We would decorate a Christmas tree with lights and shiny ornaments. But it wasn’t Christmas Day that my sister and I eagerly awaited --- our sights were set on the dawn of January 6, Three Kings Day. In Cuba, that's when we received our gifts. My sister and I used to write letters to the three kings --- Melchior, Gaspar and Balthazar --- and leave sweet cookies out for them to nibble on.

I was nine years old when everything changed. One day, my grandmother sat us down at the dining table --- major family decisions were always made at the table --- and told us that Christmas and the Three Kings had been banned in Cuba. She gave us a box full of Christmas decorations and ordered us to destroy them. At first, it seemed like a fun sort of game to me, turning the colorful balls into glittering dust. My sister, two years younger than me, didn't find it amusing at all. When we realized that banning Christmas meant we wouldn't receive any toys, we both raised a fuss. We were told it was an order from Cuba’s Commander-in-Chief Fidel Castro. “Does he think he's a god?” I heard my grandfather ask.

In 1969, without any prior notice, Fidel Castro banned Christmas in Cuba. He said that the population had to focus on the sugar harvest and that we were committed to produce 10 million tons. “What on earth do my sister and I have to do with the sugar industry?” I wondered.  I didn’t say it out loud because I’d already learned that openly dissenting in Cuba could land you in jail. Toys, we were told, would now be given to children in July, 20 days before the celebration of the revolution.

In secret, my grandparents continued to celebrate Christmas Eve and Three Kings Day with us. When we had our dinner on December 24th, they would close the windows and draw the curtains so that no one would report us. It was a secret, and both my sister and I loved secrets. My grandparents also managed to ensure that on January 6, we still received at least one toy each.

It wasn't until 1997, after almost three decades of making Christmas illegal, that the Cuban government declared that December 25 was once again a holiday. The next month, Pope John Paul II would be visiting Cuba. But by that time, my sister and I had been living in exile in the United States for years.

This Christmas, I will celebrate with my husband and our three children in Upstate New York. Just the five of us, hoping that this year we have a white Christmas. No secrets except what’s inside those wrapped packages tucked under the tree. What more could I ask for?