November 16, 1519: Havana's birth 
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 by Victoria Alcalá
 
 
The Templete is a small neo classical building constructed in the early 19th century to commemorate the first Mass and council held in the town of San Cristóbal de La Habana on November 16, 1519. Each year this event is celebrated by a series of commemorative events the most notable of which is the custom of walking three times around the ceiba tree that is planted at the entrance of the Templete. As Eusebio Leal has explained: “Someone asked me once to explain why we walk around the ceiba, as if poetry, which is the spice of life, could be explained.” The clock is ticking down to the 500th Anniversary on November 16, 2019.

Victoria Alcalá writes about Cuban culture. She has won several prestigious writing awards.
 
 


Havana, November 15, hundreds of people wait at the door of the former Palace of the Captains General, today Museum of the City, for a curious procession to begin. The motley crowd is composed of smiling youths and solemn elderly people, couples with their children and grandparents with their grandchildren, lovers and lonely hearts. Many are wearing their everyday clothes; others, their Sunday best and even new clothes for the occasion.

It’s 6 o’clock and the chimes of the bells from the Castillo de La Real Fuerza announce that the ceremony is about to start. Preceded by children from nearby schools who carry the silver maces that once belonged to the Council of Havana, and accompanied by a group of his collaborators, Eusebio leal Spengler, Historian of the City of Havana, exits the Palace of the Captains General. Someone cries: “Here comes Leal!” and the people who have been waiting hours for this moment quickly join the procession and walk across the Plaza de Armas to the Templete.

Although Leal's words are always received with pleasure, the crowd is always impatient. The Historian, who for many years has headed the procession, senses this and is brief. He reminds his listeners that Havana will be commemorating its half millennium in a few years and until then, Habaneros rejoice in the celebration of the founding of the town called San Cristóbal de La Habana.”

On the custom of walking three times around the ceiba tree that is planted at the entrance of the Templete, Leal has said that “it is essential that we walk around the tree and, in that spiral, ask time to stretch out its hand…and know that the future can be only approached from the past.”

At the mere mention of the ceiba, which recalls the tree that existed back in the 16th century and under whose shade the first Mass was held, a stir takes hold of the long line of people, sensing that the time is near for the procession round the tree to begin. The first person to walk to the ceiba is Leal himself, who walks three times round the tree throwing a coin on every turn. Then, the historian invites the public to follow suit and the ritual begins and continues all night and into the morning of the 16th.

Although according to tradition, waiting in line must be done in absolute silence and what you are going to ask the tree for should be kept a secret, it is almost impossible for a Cuban to keep quiet so long, and pretty soon you can hear absolute strangers telling each other their reasons for coming this night to Old Havana: cures for illnesses, happy endings to unrequited loves, prosperity for newly started businesses, the solution to lengthy immigration procedures, success in infertility treatments, good results in university entrance examinations, finding prince charming… Those with a more pragmatic approach to life simply ask what the Spaniards sum up as “health and wealth.”

The details of the ritual have never been really established. No one can say for sure if you only ask for one wish or a different one with every turn; if you throw a coin every time you go round the tree or only one coin or several at the end. The two currencies in Cuba also pose unprecedented concerns. What will be most effective, an offering in moneda nacional or in convertible pesos? Others are suspicious about the destination of the money left under the tree or inserted in the tree trunk and the well-known answer is that it is used for social works in Old Havana.

So, amidst, conversations, questions and suspicions, the hours go by and with the break of day, the line begins to grow with workers before they head off to their jobs in schools, hospitals, banks, stores, offices…They too wish to dedicate some time and make a wish at the ceiba of good fortune.
November 16, 1519: First mass held in San Cristóbal de La Habana
November 2014
This article formed part of the november 2014 issue of What's On Havana
What's On Havana - November, 2014
The definitive monthly travel & culture guide to Havana
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all National Days Articles
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