As I watched my daughter’s tiny face inspect the mysterious box, I was overcome with the memories of Christmases past. How could an intangible recollection hold such a physical presence, wrapping me in a warm glow while simultaneously strangling me in an icy dread, especially on Christmas morning?
It wasn’t like any Christmas I had when I was her age, when beautifully wrapped packages adorned our tree as much as the shimmering ornaments that hung from its branches. The tree, in its majestic glory stood in the center like a queen receiving her royal subjects. She stood tall with gracefully outstretched limbs, providing the perfect platform for each ornament to shine, never succumbing to the weight she would bear for the enjoyment of all who sought joy in her beauty. And, what a time of joy it was then full of laughter and music, parties and Christmas carols.
It had been so long since our large family had gone caroling. It was against the law now. No parties. No gatherings of any kind. No singing. No worship. I didn’t dare teach my daughter the lyrics to Silent Night or Oh Come All Ye Faithful for fear she might accidentally sing in public. Much like the beginning of a children’s movie, the threat of Christmas being canceled loomed for some time, but it wasn’t long after the communist regime took over that it was abolished altogether. No celebration, no midnight mass, no church services of any kind, no family Christmas dinner even in the privacy of your own home.
When I was a little girl, my dad and uncles would roast a pig (lechón asado) in the backyard while my aunts would cook a multitude of side dishes from yuca to arroz con frijoles. Tables would be set up to accommodate our large Cuban family and festive decor adorned our house inside and out. The sounds of Christmas wafted through the air. Our laughter and joy were a beacon for neighbors and friends who were drawn like moths to a flame. They came bearing gifts and rejoiced with us until just before dawn when they would rush back to their homes to sneak Christmas presents under their trees before the children woke.
I watched my daughter precariously balancing her only Christmas present on her small lap. Her eyes darted from her father’s to mine, so rare a moment was this that she was unsure, awaiting our permission. We had heard the rumors last week that toys would be distributed via the ration system the new regime had put in place, the same system that doled out the food rations each month. My husband had stood in line for twelve hours, not knowing if he would be one of the lucky few to get a toy before they ran out, not knowing what toy he would get if he did make it to the front of the line. I’ll never forget the sheer joy when he ran through our front door, picked me up and swung me around, breathlessly whispering in my ear.
“We were one of the lucky ones! She’ll have something to open Christmas morning!”
Now as our eyes met, I knew that like me, as happy as he was for our little girl, he was mourning for all those parents who weren’t as lucky.
Oh how I yearned to provide even a taste of Christmases past to my own daughter. Instead, I would set out our monthly ration of meat and a couple of plantains from our tree out back. We were lucky to still get milk since she wasn’t quite two years old yet. It was nothing compared to the feast of my childhood which seemed more like a fairytale.
For now, I guided my little girl’s hands as she pulled back the butcher paper that held her gift. Much like the majestic Christmas tree of my childhood, I sat tall with outstretched limbs and held my daughter, as she cried with happiness at the sight of her first doll. I held back my own tears, but would not succumb to the weight of a communist Christmas. For just one moment I would allow myself to experience Christmas morning through my daughter’s eyes.