Cubans have their first Christmas for 30 years

Christmas came to Havana yesterday for the first time in decades. Cubans were given the day off ahead of the Pope's forthcoming visit. Agencies report.

As church bells rang across Havana, more than 1,000 people crowded into the city's cathedral on Christmas Eve to give thanks for the first government-sanctioned Christmas in nearly 30 years.

Cardinal Jaime Ortega said that Roman Catholics never ceased to attend Christmas Mass under Fidel Castro's Communist government. But this year, with Pope John Paul II arriving for a visit next month, Christmas Eve celebrations are extra special. In honour of the visit, Mr Castro declared Christmas Day - for this year - an official holiday.

The holiday season has taken on a special meaning for Cubans. Christmas trees and other holiday items sold out weeks ago. Despite a severe economic crisis, families scraped together enough money to buy the pork roast, apple cider and other special foods for a traditional holiday meal.

"We have always done something special for Christmas Eve, even if it was just fried eggs," said Yaneysi Rodriguez, 28, who sold mandarin oranges measured out on a large rusty scale. "But this year we are going to have a big dinner with pork leg."

Cuba became officially atheist three years after the 1959 revolution that brought Castro to power and Christmas as an official holiday disappeared in 1969. Castro relented only because of the Pope's visit.

In Rome, the Pope spoke of the universal joy of the holiday. His Christmas wish: "Peace to humanity." The 77-year-old Polish Pontiff appeared tired as he read his address and later wished the world a Happy Christmas in 56 languages. He spoke of the plight of refugees, the homeless, immigrants and the unemployed, focusing on the plight of the poor in advanced nations.

In Bethlehem, workers picked up litter in Manger Square from thousands of pilgrims and Palestinians on Christmas Eve. Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat told worshippers at an Anglican service held in a courtyard near the Church of the Nativity that "there will be peace in the land". But there was also bitterness in the air. Suha Arafat, the President's wife, claimed Israel had intentionally blocked tourists from entering Bethlehem. "It is ... an attempt to stop the celebrations and to destroy the Palestinian dream," she said, "Every year we try to make the celebrations better but every year Israel tries to destroy our efforts."