Today, I’ve chosen a child’s memory of Christmases past, not in Wales, but in Cuba. Daughter of poet Eliseo Diego, Josefina de Diego’s prose poem, El Reino del Abuelo/Grandfather’s Kingdom, is a gentle and melancholic look back at Christmas time in a house full of inquisitive children, and adults immersed in the literary and musical worlds of Cuba in the 1950s, just before the Revolution.I’ve excerpted three sections from the book which has forty five pieces.
All the people in the book are real, and so fondly described by Josefina Diego, that they are instantly recognizable. And more than anything, it is the spirit of wonder and observation that make these reminiscences glitter shyly. Set in a tropical island, a time long before pandemics made it impossible to for so many to be together. So. in this Christmas of yearning, I wish you season’s greetings and the best of New Years to come!
A little cold, a drizzle. Sweaters and jackets of brilliant colours displaced the scant clothing of summer. The blankets with our names on them, so they would not get mixed up; mine was red, those of my brothers, green. The pajamas of yellow flannel with drawings of clowns and candy canes. Christmas Eve and Christmas were coming and everything had to be done with plenty of time so everything would turn out well: choosing the best tree, the ornaments, the garlands, the star. The ornaments would break on us—some without meaning to, others we dropped after a rapid interchange of glances—they would shatter into a dust so fine it would scatter on the snow of cotton. The Christmas tree had to be tall, with lots of branches, but only mama knew its exact dimensions and in what little corner of the house it would go.
The preparation for the Nativity was more solemn. The figures, from an Italian set, could not be broken. We held our breath each time we took one of the figures from its boxes and put it, with much care on the table. The Nativity was big, bigger than the one owned by cousins Sergio and Jose Maria.
Every year, always the same—perhaps his voice more hesitant each year—papa told us how it had been, how everything had happened: The visitation of Mary, the flight to Egypt, the Shepherd’s’ tidings, the long road of the Three Kings, the manger with the Child. Each piece had its history, each moment, its mystery. The shepherds, surrounded by sheep, next to a bonfire, near a lake: an angel appears in the middle of the night and they retreat, frightened. The Three Kings bending over the Child, and Mary, smiling at them, grateful. Papa’s voice, tired, breathless, across time.
Papa’s study was set apart from the house, on top of the garage beside the henhouse. One went up by a staircase made of cement, on the side. In front there were two balconies with wooden bars and behind the study was the ravine where the train ran.
The garage was wide, with room for two cars, but half of it was filled with broken furniture, bits of games, a carpentry table that belonged to uncle Rosendo, boxes filled with the figures, the Nativity, and the Christmas tree decorations. It had its own characteristic odor and was one of the places where we preferred to play and hide.
Papa worked in his study until very late. The sound of his little typewriter could be heard at all hours, mixed up with the song of the crickets and the owls; it was yet another night sound. But he didn’t always write. One of his favorite amusements was to draw, with a fine pencil, the uniforms of the little lead soldiers that he had in his unique collection. The English armies of World War One, soldiers of the Prussian armies and of the Russian tsars He created battlefields based on real maps and completed them with mountains, rivers, bridges and tunnels, made from cardboard, wires, broken glass, paper. He also reproduced all the various moments of the Nativity in a masterpiece of ingenuity. He created different levels, with the help of books covered in special paper in multiple colours. With a spotlight illuminating all the scenes, he had the precision of a professional metalworker.
Many years later I found this perfection and fineness in his poems. And I understood why his big boy’s hands constructed the Nativity and the battlefields with so much care, so much respect. “It’s necessary to do things right”, he would say to us.
Finally it arrived, Christmas eve. On this day, grandmother Bertha asked me very early in the morning to put on a record of villancicos. Sitting in the doorway, while we could hear mama tidying the house, we would hum all the carols: Silent Night, Jingle Bells, Maria, coming and going, cooked the supper. Roast pork, rice, black beans, lettuce, tomato and radish salad, chatinos, nougat, walnuts, hazelnuts, wine and cider.
The dining table was opened up in the middle and sturdy planks of wood inserted. It became a huge table, oval in shape. In the afternoon the family began to arrive: grandmother Chiffon, our cousins, uncles and aunts, friends. We were especially dressed up for the occasion, very elegantly and, we were permitted, on this night, to stay up very late, like the “grown-ups”. Upon finishing the delicious supper, we went to the living room and sat around the piano, by the Nativity and the Christmas tree. Grandmother Chiffon began to play, villancicos, zarzuelas, Cuban songs and dances. Uncle Sergio, the doctor, accompanied her in his beautiful tenor. On Christmas Eve, grandmother Chiffon and our cousins, Cuchi and Chelita slept over. Grandmother slept with us so we wouldn’t make any noise and frighten away Santa Claus. And when we awakened, there was the tree, — dreamt of and desired all year long— surrounded by toys, the games of the adults, our happiness. There was no morning more beautiful than Christmas. And there still isn’t. Isn’t that right, grandmas?
The above extracts are from a dual language edition translated by me and authored by Josefina de Diego, Havana, Cuba. El Reino del Abuelo/Grandfather’s Kingdom, Tarjama Books, Kolkata , India, 2012.