When I was growing up in Cuba, a very long time ago, it was the custom in our family to get dressed up in our nicest clothing in the afternoons on the week of Christmas, and visit the Asilos de Ancianos (homes for the elderly or nursing homes), hospitals and convents where the nuns would set up huge and very elaborate manger scenes every year...usually taking half a room or a whole vestibule.
They would "build" whole tiny villages on tables and boards that had been covered with brown paper; all wrinkled up and splashed with green paint here and there, forming hills and valleys and sometimes sprinkles of green dyed sawdust to resemble grass in places; with mountains and rivers and even lakes, with mirrors or sometimes, with real running water.
The “nacimiento”, (Crèche or Manger scenes) were filled with miniature palm trees and shepherds, sheep, donkeys and cows; little buildings and bridges, fences and orchards. Way off in the distant mountains the Magi or Three Kings could be seen, with their camels, making their way down to the stable, following a big shiny golden star, which hung right over the stable.
The Magi or “Los Reyes Magos”, and their camel entourage would be placed closer and closer as the days passed, until on the eve of January 6th, or the Epiphany, when they would finally arrive in front of the manger tableau, to find Joseph, Mary and the new born Babe.
There was usually an alms box placed nearby where donations could be made and we children were always prepared with a few coins in our pockets to put in them.
For my fourth Christmas my parents had a beautiful dollhouse made for me by a carpenter friend. It had "real" electric lights, was two stories tall, included an inside staircase, fireplaces, a chimney, a balcony upstairs and even a little gable on top. The sides opened where you could see all the rooms on either side and move the furniture around to re-decorate at will.
The wife of one of my cousins was a teacher at one of the manual arts schools (sort of a finishing school for young ladies) and she had her students make all the rugs and curtains, pillows and bedspreads as part of a class project. The students and my mother and father made most of the furniture out of wood - those were the days before you could find the hundreds of miniature furniture and appliances you can today - including the tub, sink and toilet bowl in the bathroom and the stove, sink and refrigerator in the kitchen. Everthing was made of wood, except the "parlor" set, which was made of hand painted porcelain!
After that year, the dollhouse would also be displayed in the living room, sitting on a table; all lit up and near our own bigger Christmas tree, showing it’s very own tiny Christmas tree for all the passersby to admire.
Sometime before leaving Cuba for the last time, the doll house went to a family, friends of ours who had a little girl. I hope she loved that doll house and enjoyed it for as many years as I did.
On New Year's Eve, the house was cleaned from top to bottom, even if it was already clean, and my Cuban grandmother would walk all over the house with a long handled dustpan holding a lit sage smudge stick or two to clear the home of all bad influences and welcome a healthy and prosperous New Year.
(Above: A cover from the Cuban Magazine Carteles. Carteles was one of the most popular Cuban "variety" illustrated magazines from the 1920s through the late 1950s period, and filled with many articles and lots of pictures of everyday Cuban life, sports, society, art, politics, architecture and much more . This magazine usually had colorful cover artwork done by assorted Cuban artists of the time and showed glimpses of life on the island . Here the Three Kings are wearing Cuban guayaberas and Santa is playing the maracas)
A day or two before January 6th or King's Day, the sidewalks of the main shopping streets in our hometown were lined with vendors who would set up their temporary booths and tables and sell homemade toys and crafts.
Churros, barquilleros (barquillos were a confection that was shaped and tasted like the cones used for ice cream, but crispier) and hot chocolate vendors would ply their wares at the top of their voices. It was almost just too exciting to be a part of the colorful and noisy fair-like atmosphere.
Puppets and spinning tops, dolls and dollhouses, colorful kites, pull toys and balls of every size and color! Looking back in retrospect, some of these were very cheaply made, but it was wonderful to walk up and down the streets, hoarding your money in your pocket and look, admire, touch and hopefully be able to finally make a selection and buy some of these things to give as gifts to your brothers and sisters and little playmates.
Life is much different in Cuba today than it was when we were growing up...I just hope that someday, the children of the island can experience life as we did and be able to store as many rich memories as I have.
The first part can be read here: