Two Decembers ago, I stepped off a plane in Vienna, Austria, on what turned out to be St. Nicholas Day. Last December I arrived in Santiago, Cuba, in time for the Festival of San Lazaro. Two higher-contrast examples of how we humans celebrate the holidays might be difficult to find on this earth. Yet in some ways they were so similar.
Vienna is all old-world charm. Nestled next to the Alps, its winters are all gray skies and snow. The people are an odd blend of Germanic rigidity and Eastern European culture. Beautiful cathedrals and palaces and family-run goulash houses. Coffeehouses where locals linger for three hours in deep conversation.
There may not be another city of this size that takes Christmas so seriously. The downtown has many streets closed to cars and in their place are hundreds of trees, wreaths and crèches. Stores seemed to compete for festive decor. Long after the stores were closed, the downtown pedestrian-only streets were crowded with neighbors walking and socializing. Neighborhood squares around town had individual fairs, with children performing in costume and artists displaying their work. And throughout the city, the most popular stops were countless booths serving a warm wine concoction called gluvine. Family members of all ages drank the traditional potion from festive ceramic mugs as they tried to stay warm in the evening wind. The alcohol ignited a minor buzz that seemed to tie the entire city together into one large family with a collective electric current.
Crossing the island of Cuba in December was a sub-tropical contrast. Thirty years of isolation and a government ban on religion have tried to smother what was once an island of deeply Catholic people into a spiritual desert. There are no nativity scenes, Santas, or reindeer and the only Christmas trees are strangely tucked into the corner of lobbies of hotels into which only foreign tourists are allowed. Until the pope visited in 1997, any recognition of Christmas was outlawed.
But on the Festival of San Lazaro, even Castro and his guards couldn’t stamp out a spiritual expression that is as basic to mankind’s needs as food and water and companionship. Groups gather in selected homes for a 24-hour spiritual holiday called a bembe, disguised as a family party. The collective theme is Santeria, a cleverly hidden hybrid of Christianity, African Yoruban icons and voodoo.
These people who have so little material goods are quick to invite even American tourists off the street to share in their chanting, dancing, drinking and worship around an altar of food, holy water and artifacts. Percussionists or even old tape players keep the beat going around the clock.
One man who was the local butcher invited us back that evening for a family feast for which he was cooking a cabrito, or goat. When we arrived, he led us into a small living room totally encircled with people of a variety of ages and colors. “This,” he said to us in Spanish with his arms outstretched toward the whole circle, “– this is all my family. You are my family, too!” After he had ensured all had plenty to eat and drink, he and his wife took plates full of food to neighbors unable to leave their homes.
Although these two cultures were outwardly worlds apart, they shared the same sense of family and desire to celebrate the season. I like to think as I celebrate the holidays this year with my own family, I can incorporate both the pageantry of Vienna and the passion of Cuba.