Tradition is the Soul of Nations
It has been said that “music is the soul of nations”. On these days of such passion for inclusion I would prefer to say that tradition is, in its totality, the soul of nations. A nation that distances itself from its customs and celebrations loses not just its identity but also a big part of its humanity.
During this time of the year when many of us observe traditional events such as Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, the End and Start of the year and the arrival of the Three Wise Men, entwined with the Jewish holidays and -in recent times of political correctness- with the celebrations of other ethnicities, it seems appropriate to review the meaning and relevance of that which we know as “tradition”.
The traditional festivities of a country may or may not be linked to its religious beliefs and practices, but they still encapsulate the fervor and abnegation of the people, as much as any faith or denomination. They serve, as does the adoration of any deity, to channel the best customs and manners of any civilized society and simultaneously exalt the candor and kindness that society has to offer to the rest of the world.
I was born in 1957 in the city of Sancti Spíritus (now a province), in the former province called Las Villas, in the central part of Cuba. My first conscious memories date back to the years following the triumph of Castro’s revolution in 1959. The only child of a religious father who would seldom attend church and an agnostic mother, I had the privilege of a balance that would allow me to develop more or less in accordance with my own intuition -always guided and protected by my parents’ sense of justice and compassion. I also have vague remembrances of another aspect of my childhood when my heart would soften, my playful days would be inspired and my soul would dream of fantastic realities that my mind would trace in indulging images. This part of my life would manifest yearly with the arrival of Christmas Eve (Noche Buena), Christmas Day, the time to bid farewell to the ending year and welcome the new and, of course, the coming of the Three Kings (Wise Men), bearing gifts for every child in town, every January 6. My early experiences with these traditions were filled with a joy that was contagious, the enthusiasm of my innocent amazement and even a relative abundance of praise and gifts. There was a cyclical expectation from that moment when my parents and aunt would dust off the ornaments, decorate the traditional tree and other parts of the house and lights would magically go on everywhere. It was essentially a month to rejoice; when sorrows were shelved, our best human sentiments would be exhibited -like the act of giving and receiving- and it would even seem that, at least for a brief and symbolic moment in time, humanity would reach optimum levels of kindness and fraternity.
I think I remember the year when there were fewer lights. It must have been 1965. I noticed a subtle conspiracy of indifference among my elders as the holiday season arrived. For the first time I became aware of the decrease in decorations in the remaining stores of the town. Perhaps it had already been going on, but I had not yet noticed. Later, I found out that many of the small business owners had left the country. I also learned the meaning of the word “exile”. A little bit after that my family initiated procedures to leave the homeland, by then totally taken hostage and subjugated by incoherent and capricious interests that subsequently would be defined as a long and impoverishing communist dictatorship.
At school, there were fewer mentions of the symbols of the season. In a very short amount of time all that was left was the generic reference to the end of the year and the arrival of the new, labeled by government with one of its rhetorical and ridiculous socialist slogans and aimed at the indoctrination of every young Cuban. The traditional Christmas Eve’s dinner turned into a very complicated project, as the products that were so customary at every table, of any social class household, became very scarce. The confiscation of private businesses led to huge difficulties in the acquisition of gifts, which in turn did away with the gift exchanging tradition. The saddlebags of the Three Wise Men’s camels became lighter and lighter with the arrival of every January 6.
My parents would allow me to visit the houses of various families that had arrived in town from the countryside soon after the victory of Castro’s revolution. These families had been “rewarded” for their loyalty and support to the newly formed government and some had been permitted to occupy the properties once owned by Cuban professionals and business owners who had fled the oppressive regime. Such privileges and their ties to the fleeing remnants of a once prosperous and abundant Cuban farming system would still secure the presence at their dinner tables of the traditional pork, as well as other typical eatables. I remember very little mention at their events of the actual significance of the celebrations; almost as if part of the unspoken agreement between government and politically compromised and rewarded citizens was to collectively put out any remaining vestiges of the former Cuba.
And then, there were even fewer lights. And it became more difficult, even for the privileged to obtain the “essentials” for the December board. The incomparable pilfering and squandering capacity of Communism, along with its absolute incapacity to produce and replenish, slowly annihilated all traditions and murdered the will of a once thriving and happy society. Shielded by the excuse of the United States embargo, yet under the complete subsidy and influence of the secularist, Marxist Soviet Union, the inept and maniacal leaders of the Castro regime would continue their relentless campaign of extinction of all cultural and moral values from the traditional Cuban way of life. The coming of new generations, stripped of any tradition and religion, would facilitate the reprogramming of men and women into a societal pattern of apathy and neglect.
As we do every December in our truly political exile, my wife and I choose a night to go around sightseeing many familiar areas of the American northeast. The purpose of these excursions is to enjoy the magnificent display of tradition, illumination and color of our diverse and great nation. The United States, for centuries, have brought together multitudes of cultures to share precepts of liberty, respect, individualism and above all tradition. This holiday season it seemed to us as if there were fewer lights in the course of our travels. Maybe the economic problems which currently afflict so many American families have caused some discouragement. Perhaps the new obsession for inclusion and our meticulous revision and analysis of the much trivial sensitivity of others, have contributed to the reduction in our displays of the symbols of our beliefs. It might even be that our society is falling –inadvertently- under the influence of arid and insensible ideologies which dedicate an incalculable amount of resources and time to try to transform our traditional culture. In any case, our trip back home did not have the usual flare of rejuvenated energy and positivism of previous years. As we approach our house the illuminated garland and the two small pine trees at the entrance helped to restore our enthusiasm. The night sky was clear and there were various stars above. One star appeared to shine more above the others. A friend who is knowledgeable in these matters refers to this star as Venus. Yet, it occurred to us that it looked like the Star from those stories -turned tradition- that lighted the path of three astrologers, over two thousand years ago, as they searched for a newborn child who the same tradition claims was an emissary of God.