It was a party doomed from the start when the cracks that eventually would erode our family began to appear. But at that time no one knew it. And we whispered to each other, "Feliz Navidad," a phrase that had the alluring jingle of prohibited words.
"Merry Christmas" was a taboo greeting. In the '80s official calendar, Navidad was an ordinary day. If it fell during the week, people went to their jobs as usual. When it fell on a weekend, they were asked to do voluntary work. Decorating the house with Christmas ornaments was considered a bourgeois trend as was singing "Silent Night" and "Little Drummer Boy." Those who had kept their old artificial trees hid them in bedrooms and kitchens.
Only in churches were Christmas trees displayed from December to January. Nuestra Señora del Carmen on Infanta Avenue exhibited an elaborately ornamented real pine tree and a larger-than-life Nativity scene. Los Pasionistas in the Lawton neighborhood had a more modest set.
Though Mom was a devotee of the Virgin of Charity, our family seldom went to church. We celebrated at home with a traditional Christmas dinner: roasted pork served with white rice, black beans and yuca with a garlic sauce. Yuca, rice and beans were sold in Havana, but pigs were black market items and had to come straight from the countryside.
We went in together with another family to buy a pig. Every December, my father and his buddy Gerardo took the Pinar del Río train and traveled to Piloto, a remote village, to buy a Christmas pig. Gerardo's cousin, Miguel, sold a few animals clandestinely, risking several years in jail if he were caught.
Grandma started talking about the Christmas party early in November.
"This may be the last Navidad we all can get together," she said.
"Next year in Miami" had become her mantra. She invited her brother,Armando, and his wife, Jacinta, to celebrate with us. Grandma would make the roast, the yuca and the dessert. Jacinta would take care of the rice and black beans, and Armando would bring the drinks. Though Tío Armando and Tía Jacinta were Fidel [Castro] supporters and often argued with grandma over politics, they agreed to come. They had one condition: they wouldn't be celebrating Christmas, they warned us, but "another anniversary of the revolutionary triumph."
My grandfather, cantankerous by nature, voted against the idea.
"What's the point of having these people over?" he asked. "They don't care about us."
"They are family," grandma replied.
"Well, don't count on me for that stupid party."
"One less mouth, more pork for the rest of us!"
Arrangements for the fiesta de Navidad began, but there were problems from the start. The motor of our refrigerator, an old Frigidaire, suddenly stopped working. A clandestine mechanic charged t200 pesos to repair it.
"This party is doomed," my grandfather said, taking off his eyeglasses.
My father and Gerardo left the Havana train station on a Saturday morning. They were supposed to come back the following evening with the slaughtered pig hidden in unmarked suitcases. If the police stopped them, they could claim they had just found the suitcases and didn't know what was inside: a weak excuse, but an excuse, nonetheless.
The next day my mother and I picked them up in a '55 Chevy. Fernando, a family friend, had agreed to drive us in exchange for three pounds of pork meat. This was also an underground business since taxi drivers were only allowed to work for the state.
The Pinar del Río train arrived on time, but my dad and Gerardo didn't. There wasn't another train until Tuesday. We went home and waited for a phone call that would explain the delay. Two days passed and no one called. Dad was carrying 800 pesos, four times his monthly salary.
"You should have gone with him," grandma told my mother. "He has enough money to buy two barrels of Coronilla rum."
"But he hasn't drunk for three months," my mother replied.
"Which means he'll have the biggest binge ever," my grandfather croaked. "The guy now has a 90-day-old thirst."
Dad wouldn't drink too much during Christmas. He prided himself on staying sober, or semi-sober, while non-drinkers had a couple of beers and made fools of themselves. He laughed at the unskilled drunks who, after a glass of rum, tried to sing the Spanish version of "White Christmas," "Blanca Navidad," so out of tune that it ended up being a sad mockery, a triste Navidad.
"I'll never get drunk after the 10th of December," he had said many times. "That's for newbies."
It was December the 15th. But grandma suspected that it wouldn't take long to change his mind, particularly when he had an encouraging companion and plenty of pesos in his pocket.
The Tuesday train was crowded, but my dad and Gerardo weren't among the passengers. By then we owed Fernando six pounds of pork or their equivalent, 80 pesos. He was getting anxious, too.
"I'm afraid we aren't even going to see that pig's ears," my mother sighed.
The Spanish translation of this story here.