Thursday, January 7, 2010

A Kings’ Day to Grandma.

January 6th is in our tradition, Spanish by the way, the day of the Three Wise Men. Early tradition actually told of 12 astronomers making their way to Judea, presumably the 12 tribes of Israel and, of course, the 12 apostles. But somehow, probably because of the number of gifts mentioned, the number over the centuries dwindled to three. Matthew’s gospel is the only one that even mentions them. Overall we don’t know much more about them, except that they were searching for Jesus. This feast is called “Epiphany”.A Kings' Day to Granm

In Spanish tradition, which we held in Cuba long time ago when I was a child, that’s the day when our parents bring us our gifts rather than Christmas Day in the Anglo-Saxon tradition. We called it “Dia de Reyes” in honour of the three wise men who visited baby Jesus.

January 6th is also my grandmother’s birthday, and it was always the joy and the center of our family. That day was marked with joy, happiness and sweet dreams. The night before I usually wrote a letter to our Three Kings (we called them kings rather than Wise Men) asking by toys of any kind, when in fact we only could afford three toys, assigned by our government, which I didn’t understand too much the reasons why I had to ask for only three. Just for the record, I always had more than that. My mother did whatever was at her reach to fulfill my dreams.

January 6th 1969 was the last day with the happy feast, since then, our government banned the holidays with the deceit of our Sugar Cane Harvest in 1970. After that, toys and day were transfer to June: a more politically correct date to our new traditions.

Since 1961, Cuba faced the demand of toys to our childhood as it faced the demand of food supplies to our inhabitants: setting a ration book with three toys to every child, one basic and two non-basic toys. I would say the definition about what it is a basic toy and what it is a non-basic is beyond any explanation. But I would rather put in this way: a basic toy is the dream of any child. The non-basic: whatever a child throws to any corner.

The sad thing is, not every child could get the “basic” toy of his dream: not because his parents didn’t have the money; not because they were too many children at home; not because they behaved badly before January 6th. No, it is because, after all, there weren’t enough “basic” toys to every child in our green island. To get that dreamy toy, you had to be of the first in the line to buy it. To be the first in the line, you had to get one of the first numbers in the public lottery held it in our neighbourhoods.

Ah, lottery. We all have been touched by that magic word. With lottery we can emigrate to US applying in US Interests Sections in Havana. With lottery we could also reach the luckiest first numbers when I was a child to get the bike you wished for.

Basic and non-basic toys, basic and non-basic citizens, basic and non-basic civil rights, basic and non basic Cuba: how many concepts, definitions and rules did our government establish based in basic and non-basic categorizations?

Toys, dreams and Three Wise Men were expatriated from Cuba. The lucky day becomes a more politically correct date in June. The toys were removed from our ration book in the eighties. After all, there weren’t enough toys to everybody so, why make things more complicated, I guess. Since then, Cuban parents had to buy their children’s toys any time, when those rare items appeared in the market.

Those shining trains and automobiles of my childhood were replaced by plastics and roughly little toys made by who knows. And after 1991, with the collapse of the Soviet Union and Cuba’s economy, even those where only located in the little kiosks of artisans and in the black market.

Today, to afford that precious item you need to have CUC, our convertible currency, because only in those stores you could find the little “basic” dream of any child in Christmas Day or in January 6th. And about our dear friends, our Three Wise Men, they were expatriated among other items and celebrations when Christmas became a capital punishment in 1970 and never came back. Timidly, some of them returned after Pope John Paul II visited Cuba, the small concession that every totalitarian regime always give when it doesn’t hurt too much.

I was reluctant to write about January 6th, mostly because my grandmother is too old, too sick, too lost in her dreams and own world. She reached 99 yesterday back home, and I wasn’t there, but she didn’t miss it. That date is sacred in our family. After all, she has been our family’s matriarch since I have memory.

But, also, I was reluctant remembering my own story in the past. When I had plenty of toys and my dreams were fulfilled, I also remember many of my friends didn’t have too much to celebrate, too little what they had to play with, and some of them felt the pinch of envy about my lucky numbers every year in the stores. You got it, right? My mother bought numbers to buy more than one “basic” toy for me to those who didn’t have the money to afford it, or need that money to afford the milk or something to eat.

The legions of sad children looking through the stores windows, dreaming with his bike, or his firefight truck, or the little battery powered train, or the baseball glove and returning home to their reality to find out their tickets were sold to another lucky one, like me, who could afford it. And that is not a story. The picture you could see at the top of this post is me, at the age of 4, in front of my house, in January 6th 1969. The locomotive is part of a battery powered train (I still have that one back at home), the riffle and the little tank were also “basic” toys in the revolutionary terms of the new Cuba.

How many dreams did those toys cut in other children minds?

January 6th is over. The happy memories recollected in pictures and stories passed with the day. My grandmother is living a year closer to her century. But the memory set a trap to our past. With the age and a family growing beside you, looking here and there for the Christmas gift to your child, those painful memories you kept behind the happy ones chase you and make you look back, from the distance of the time and place, and you know that for every happy memory you got, there were 2 or 3 sad stories to tell.

Could you sleep content and disengage?

Could you celebrate Kings’ Day forgetting those who are looking through the windows to the toys in our stores in Cuba?

I don’t think so.