The Three Wise Men Return to Cuba

Although no one thinks it heresy to celebrate the arrival of the three wise men (a celebration common in many Spanish-speaking countries), there could be concern if this re-emerging tradition in Cuba strengthen patterns of consumerism and social inequality.

By: Yailin Orta, Dora Perez, Julieta Garcia, Norge Martinez, Amaury E. del Valle and students of Journalism Danay Galletti and Mario Cremata. Photos: Calixto N. Llanes

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2007-01-10 | 10:42:02 EST

Dayron Luis Cuestas is only four years old. He cannot write yet, and for that reason his mother wrote a letter for him to the Three Wise Men, as is done in many Spanish-speaking countries. The boy himself put the letter next to the star on top of family’s Christmas tree.

Dayron asked for a miniature motorcycle, since he promises to be a good boy who will take care of his toys, plants and pets.

What if tomorrow there is no gift under the tree?

—It’s OK, I only asked them to bring them if they could.

In another family, eight-year-old Gabriela Trias, also wrote her letter to the Kings, said, “I want Barbie and Ken dolls and red lipstick.”

The celebration of the three wise men, or “Kings Day” every January 6, is re-emerging in Cuban society. During the days following Christmas, it is almost impossible to walk into a toy department in any hard currency store on the island.

The tradition, which recalls the Biblical passage concerning the arrival of Melcher, Casper and Balthazar to worship Baby Jesus, was brought from Spain by the colonizers, and it seems to have reawakened after several years of being dormant.

“Every year we talk to our child about the Kings. We tell him he has to write a letter with his wishes. Actually, we help him to write it because he hasn’t started school yet and cannot write.”

This was explained to JR reporters by Ernesto Cabrera, a young security agent for the Ministry of Transportation, with whom they talked to on Friday at the Ultra shopping center. There, as in all the large stores in the capital, throngs of people crowded the toy department.

Ernesto carried a present for his child, who is turning six on January 21. “I bought him a car. It cost me 10.30 convertible pesos. It’s a good present, but a little expensive.”

Besides that birthday present, are you thinking about giving something else to your child on January 6?

—Yes, I am. I have a set of felt-tipped pens, two little cars and a toy cell phone.

Why are you promoting this custom?

—Perhaps to rescue the tradition that existed at some moment and that was lost during my childhood.

Do you know the origin of this tradition?

—No, I don’t.

Why do you think it should be maintained, then?

—Because it’s beautiful.

Close to Ernesto, Mercedes Pulin, a housewife, left the store loaded with toys for her two boys, who are nine and eight years old. “This year I’m giving each of them a mack truck, a toy gun, a watch and a belt. They asked me for a fire truck, but I couldn’t find it.”

How do you give them their presents?

—I put them in the hall while they’re sleeping at night, so they’ll see them when they wake up.

And when they ask you who brought them, what do you tell them?

—I tell them that the “Kings” —their father and I— brought them.

Wouldn’t you prefer to tell them the story of the legendary Kings?

—I like to tell them the truth, so they won’t live a lie.

If they know that the Kings don’t exist, why do you give them the presents on January 6 and not on any other date?

—Because all children are given presents on that day. I do it so they have their toys on that day too.

Maribel Santana, a fifty-year old, gives a present to her grandson every January 6. “When I was a kid, children always receive a present on that day. My grandson is only three years old and he can’t yet understand this tradition, but I talk to him about the Kings. I tell him that they rode camels —actual camels— (as opposed to Cuban two-humped buses called “camels”) and that they answer kids’ letters.”

What’s this fuss about?

Not all the people interviewed by JR knew the story of the Kings. For many, the celebration is only a reason to buy their kids a present to make them feel good that day, no matter if they know why it is done on that date.

Madelin Reyes, 35, goes back in time and recalls the days when she anxiously waited for the Kings Day, when she used to buy the toys offered by the state at reasonable prices and at regulated amounts so every one could buy them and every one could have the same amount.

“I think that initiative should be rescued so every one can afford the toys. For many parents this is a hard day that takes a lot of our effort,” she says.

Dalia Lozano and her kids have been walking the stores of Havana in their search of a gameboy. If they find it, that will be her present for Rafael and Reynaldo, her 11 and 13-year-old kids.

Many of the parents interviewed recognized, as Dalia did, that buying a present that day is not only a reason for kids to be happy, but also one for them – although they have to make a lot of sacrifices.

For Onnie Hower Avila this celebration is not as complicated as it is for many children. “Toys are pretty expensive, but my six-year-old girl is content with whatever you give her. I even take her to the store so she can pick her present herself, but if I don’t have enough money I tell her and that’s it.”

“I think that all this movement around the Kings Day has nothing to do with our country. This is a tradition for capitalist countries. It’s amazing to see all those long lines because every parent wants to give their kid a present no matter the reason,” said Nidia Diaz Diegues.

Deborah Fernandez Gonzalez is also concerned with the course Kings Day is taking. “I’m 22 and I didn’t live through all this fuss at the stores during my childhood. I think about what will happen when I have kids and I can’t please them that day. I don’t believe in the tradition, nor do many of those buying toys today. Sometimes it is done to imitate, so their kids won’t feel inferior to their friends in the neighborhood or at school.”

“I know the tradition of the Kings from what my parents have told me. It was one of the days in which they were full of illusions, although they later felt frustrated because they received nothing. They had a lot of sisters and brothers and their families were poor,” says Liliana Alonso, 20.

Do you talk to her about theMagi” (the three wise men)?

—No, she knows this is a combined grandmother/grandfather effort to encourage her good behaviour. She is in second grade, and she is a great student and an excellent daughter.

So, this date has no meaning for you?

—No. If people didn’t celebrate this day, I would celebrate it anyway, with the same love and affection.

Many parents share the same opinion. For them, a gift at the end of the academic year given for the good grades is sometimes as important or even more than the Magi. Luis Santana Yllobre was one of the parents who said that his children, wife and he are given gifts every day of the year. “What’s important are people, not dates. That makes it more exciting and unexpected.”

GREATER DEMAND, EQUAL SUPPLY

Knowing or not about the origin of this tradition, there is no doubt that during the first days of the year there is an increase in the selling of toys. This was confirmed by Raisa Vazquez, deputy manager of La Epoca, who assures this year selling has been the greatest since the reopening of this store in 1998.

“The huge demand has forced us to sell toys in other departments of the store, such as the hardware department or the area of school items, for the client not to stand in those long lines in the hall for this type of products.”

Did they reduce any prices?

—No, this chain of stores has the lowest prices and there is no need to do so.

What do you think is the reason for the increase of the selling during this time of the year?

—I don’t know what the exact reason is. I think that the visits of the Cubans living abroad may have an influence on it.

In Ultra, another nearby store, his manager Jose Carlos Rodriguez thinks that toy sales during January started increasing in 2001 and 2002. Like in La Epoca, there are many sales outlets to prevent people from overcrowding the same department store. However, prices do not change during January, though prices traditionally decrease at a corporate level during February and September.

“I believe that after this store opened, including a toy department, the supply of items increased. Moreover, there has been an increase in the selling of toys with a range of prices. Now, they are even bought in China at more economical prices.”

According to this official, the cause for the increasing demand of these items is especially due to parents’ interest in awarding their children for good behaviour and academic results, and not because of religious or cultural tradition.

As Michel Hernandez Melen, a salesclerk at the “Todo x 1” (everything for a dollar) department of the Carlos III mall, said there were no specific discounts on Kings Day, with only a few toys and school items availble, which sold out quickly. He does not know anything about the story of the Magi, but always gives a present to his son, who asked for a bus this time.

“Toys are too expensive and the cheap ones do not meet the parents and children’s expectations. If we offer more toys, people will have more options and less complaints,” said the salesclerk.

In the opinions gathered by the JR reporters, most of the stores managers agreed that in Cuba there is no publicity or information about this celebration, and the management of the different chains do not supply new items, nor do they stimulate in any way the commercialization of these products.

“This is a tradition that has gained strength in the last few years, but it originated mostly from the public (as opposed to the government),” said a manager. “The chain neither provides toys to us nor does it allow us to reduce the prices; so, Cuban store chains have nothing to do with this celebration, as happens in the rest of the world.”

WHEN THE MAGI VISIT US

“The celebration of the day of the Magi is linked to religious festivity, closely related to a biblical story, but consumer society took advantage of this – using it as a vehicle for selling and promoting the toy market,” says Dr. in Philosophical Sciences Teresa Munoz, professor of the Department of Sociology of the University of Havana.

Dr. Munoz noted that the Cuba promotes equality and collective enjoyment as a means of people’s education, and perhaps that’s the reason why people pay less attention to this kind of tradition.

“Many of these festivities with a religious character disappeared with the triumph of the Cuban Revolution. Like all revolutions, our process created its own symbols and tried to sweep away past. One can add to this the fact that the day of the Magi was a date where families suffered from the great social differences,” said Dagoberto Rodriguez, assistant professor in the department of History at the University of Havana.

Sonia Enjamio, professor of that same department, said that the tradition of the Magi has been picked up to a great extent in Cuba due to the new historic context we are living in today. “Cuba is not isolated from the rest of the world, and therefore, we are also affected by the effects of the globalization and consumerism,” she noted.

“We have to analyze this tradition as having a very strong historic basis, dating back for centuries before the triumph of the Revolution. There are families which were radical and did not continue, but part of society continued to remain attached to the tradition,” she said.

“Cuba of 2007 is not like that of 1989. The country had to face great changes after the collapse of the Soviet Union. There is an essential difference in the way of living of those people receiving from remittances and those who not; just as there is the phenomenon of the “new rich.” That is demonstrated by the great differences between the gifts brought by the Magi to the children of the first group and to those of the people who do not beneficiate directly with those same income sources,” stated professor Dagoberto.

Jesus Garcia, researcher of the Institute of Philosophy, explained that all social facts are difficult to analyze in isolation. However, gift-buying for the day of the Magi show a change in Cuban’s daily lives.

“What could be damaging from the celebration of this date could be the transferring of affection into products, or the stimulation of irrational consumption as a way for businesses to maximize profits,” he said.

The specialist thinks that it is not the festivity that causes differences, but that it is an expression of the latter. “To give a gift to your child is not harmful, but I believe that the inequality created by parents buying excessive gifts, compared with those who can’t, really can become a problem,” stated Teresa Munoz.

“We need to worry about the social connotation that this can mean if buying the most ostentatious gift becomes the objective of all families. The issue is not the celebration, and problem’s solution is not to prohibit it, but to make people aware of the implications of generating materialistic habits which could deform children’s values, making them feel superior to others.”

THE REVOLUTION BROUGHT FANTASY TO FRUITION

The Cuban revolution was not made to kill fantasy; on the contrary, it tried to make it come true. During the insurrectional struggle against Batista’s dictatorship in the mountains of the eastern region of the island, rebels gave gifts to the children of farmers on the day of the Magi, and sometimes they even acted like these characters, with the only difference being that their beards were real.

It is known that when the war ended, planes from the new Rebel Air Force “bombed” the Sierra Maestra with toys, in an initiative proposed by Fidel Castro and Celia Sanchez. Thanks to this, many children had a toy in their hands for the first time. The Revolution was finally bringing the Magi to these places.

This was the origin of the tradition of giving toys on the third Sunday of July, the Day of Children, when every child in the country, without distinction, received a set of toys. Unfortunately, this tradition was forced to end due to pressing economic problems, though many people still remember it with nostalgia.

This determination of defending illusions and equity for all Cuban children has also been supported over the past few years around the Day of the Magi with the free delivery of toys to children in schools in Old Havana.

As explained the City Historian of Havana, Eusebio Leal Spengler, “This office gives a toy to every child in kindergartens, primary and special schools of eight municipalities of Havana in commemoration of the Day of the Magi. The only difference is that we decided to celebrate it on January 8 instead of on January 6. On this day we celebrate the arrival of Fidel in Havana

“All students receive their gifts in the name of the Cuban nation. This also happens in the special municipality of Caimanera, in the eastern region of the country, because children living in this area in the past were humiliated by US soldiers at the Guantanamo Naval Base, who threw them toys through the perimeter fence.”

Leal said the project, which picked up the tradition of our ancestors, started in 1999 in Old Havana and has been extended since 2001 to other neighboring and outlying municipalities of the city.

Nearly 100,000 gifts were given out on Monday in events attended by elementary students and workers.

The Havana City historian explained that the tradition of the Magi comes from the Judeo-Christian and Muslim cultures. “There are still active wells in Arab lands by where the Magi passed. There is no doubt that Melcher, Casper and Balthazar are symbols. This is a beautiful tradition, as is the celebration of the Mothers Day or Fathers Day. Why not celebrate it? How can it hurt us?

“There is nothing sadder than a child without a toy. I know very well what it means. Reality changed for everyone in Cuba on January 8. That is the reason why we give everything we can to our children.”

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