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Cubans Celebrate Christmas Quietly

December 25, 2002

HAVANA (AP) _ Six years after Christmas was declared an official holiday in this communist country, many Cubans marked the day by relaxing. But there was little evidence of the day’s traditional Western trappings.

The big jolly figure of Santa Claus was erected outside the U.S. Interests Section, the American mission here. And Christmas trees twinkled in the lobbies of tourist hotels and office buildings housing foreign companies.

But the holiday was not mentioned in state media. And though there were some secular observances, the celebration and commercialization of the event common in many Western nations were not apparent here.

But religious believers attended midnight Masses and other services on Christmas Eve and day.

``Christmas is the most important feast day″ for Cuban Catholics, said Arturo Hernandez, a worker, at Havana’s downtown cathedral. ``As a Cuban, I always celebrated″ on Christmas Eve, he said.

The government of Fidel Castro suspended official Christmas celebrations in the early 1960s, citing the need for workers to continue laboring during the annual sugar harvest.

While Christmas celebrations were never outrightly prohibited, they were frowned on. In the early 1990s, Cuba began allowing religious believers for the first time to join the ruling Communist Party.

The communist government declared Dec. 25, 1997, a one-time holiday as a gesture of respect for Pope John Paul II, who visited the island the following January.

Christmas was declared a permanent official holiday beginning in December 1998.

New Year’s Eve, which also marks the anniversary of the 1959 Cuban revolution, remains the island’s most widely celebrated holiday.

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