Liberating Christmas

“I told [my friends] that I approved of the shift of Christmas to the 26th of July, [the anniversary of the Cuban Revolution,] even though many Catholics thought of it as a profanation. The primitive Church celebrated the birth of Christ on the 6th of January…and the feast was later moved to the 25th of December because on that date the Romans celebrated the birth of the sun… Wasn’t it better to celebrate the birth of Jesus on the birthday of the Revolution than on the birthday of the sun?”

Ernesto Cardenal, In Cuba

In 1959, Fidel, Che, and their comrades led the 26th of July Movement to victory in Cuba against the brutal dictator Fulgencio Batista. That year, Vicentina Antuña, the director of culture, made a big announcement: Santa Clause wouldn’t be making any stops on the newly liberated island. Santa, she observed, and not without good reason, was “a recent importation [from the U.S.] and foreign to our culture.” Besides, the government pointed out, Cubans already have a gift exchange on January 6th, the Epiphany, when the liturgical calendar celebrates the visit of the Three Wise Men bearing gifts to the Christ child. With a day like that, who needs a Coca-Cola mascot in December?

Ten years later, in 1969, Christmas was removed from the list of public holidays, since it interrupted an important sugar harvest. People were not barred from going to Mass or to church, but it was a normal work day. Cubans would have the day off on July 26th to celebrate the revolution, so other Christmas festivities were postponed until then. As you can imagine, the image of Castro as the Communist Grinch who stole Christmas was a convenient caricature for many in the United States (never mind that plenty of low-wage workers still had to work on Christmas there anyhow).

Father Ernesto Cardenal, a radical Nicaraguan priest, visited Cuba in 1971. Living under the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza at the time, he had a different reaction to the change. December 25th was already a way of mapping the Christmas story onto a different holiday. Why not make the birth of God-With-Us, Emmanuel, coincide with the birth of a revolutionary movement? Surely the story of the liberation of Cuba from a dictator resonates more with the birth of Jesus than the cultural festival of a long-gone empire, or the year-end sales of corporations.

Preparing to celebrate Christmas in a capitalist country, where Santa will skip the houses of the poor and fly over the homeless, I can’t help but feel that Christmas, too, is in need of liberation. How can I welcome the infant Christ to this world when his birthday is the occasion for so much sin? 

Advent is not only a time to hope for the birth of Christ; it’s also a time to hope for a better Christmas, one that’s true to its revolutionary spirit. On Christmas Eve, this last day of Advent, I’m reminded of how these dual hopes are articulated beautifully in the song “Navidad en Libertad,” composed by famed Nicaraguan folk singer Carlos Mejía Godoy, a comrade of Fr. Cardenal: 

“It has to come soon, that day

When Christmas is no longer

Just the privilege of the rich

But of humanity…

Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas

In justice and liberty

Merry Christmas

A better world

Without misery or oppression

Merry Christmas, children of my town!

Merry Christmas, children of the world!”

Can you imagine a Christmas in justice and liberty? Can you anticipate it? When I think about revolutionary movements, like in Cuba, I find that, suddenly, I can. Advent is transformed into a time when I anticipate both the birth of Jesus and the birth of a new way of being together, a Revolution, a world without misery or oppression. 

That anticipation sheds some more light on the suggestion that Christmas should coincide with Cuba’s revolutionary holiday. The more I think about Jesus being born among the poor, an odd thought as I watch commercials and pass donation boxes, the more it seems like it’s the capitalists who stole Christmas. And if that’s the case, then the spirit of Christmas is also the spirit of Revolution, one that Advent can prepare us to embody with the hope that, with hard work and solidarity, we might liberate ourselves, our neighbors, and, yes, even our holy days from the power of capitalism.

After all, wouldn’t it be better to celebrate the birth of Jesus on the birthday of the Revolution than on the birthday of the sun?

[First published as part of a 2019 Advent series called Radvent, edited by Ben Swihart and Megan Westra.]

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