Three times around the ceiba

For white, black and Chinese people, the ceiba is a sacred tree. Untouchable. Like the palm tree, it has its own personality. Neither storm nor hurricane nor lighting affects it, and it is not pruned or cut down without the permission of the gods. Anyone who plants a ceiba becomes committed to it for life, because his or her luck, health and general well-being depends on it. It is a throne. In its foliage live orishas [Yoruban deities], our ancestors and the Catholic saints. In the Santeria religion, the Iroko, as believers call the ceiba, is identified with Olofi and Obbatalá, with Olorum, Oloddumare and Ochanlá; it is the tree of God, and it is the house of God for the paleros, followers of the Palo religions. There, the Arará invoke fearsome, venerated gods.

Sacrifices were offered to the ceiba as one walked around it, says Natalia Bolívar in her book, Cuba: imágenes y relatos de un mundo mágico (Cuba: Images and Stories of a Magic World). This was done while carrying a cane decorated with rattles and ribbons, accompanied by a young calf and burning candles. White roosters, ducks and turkeys were offered up.

As late as the first half of the 20th century, young women mostly from the middle and upper classes would get up early in the morning in the Cuban capital and, without saying a word to anyone — not even a greeting — they would go to the Cathedral, knock on one or more of its doors, and — still in total silence — walk to El Templete, a monument that commemorates the founding of Havana in 1519. The young women would make a wish while walking seven times around a famous ceiba, which, according to legend, stands on the site of the celebration of Havana’s first mass and first town council.

El Templete, built in 1828, can be visited at the Plaza de Armas. The rite is now simpler. You no longer need a cane with ribbons and rattles, calf or feathered animals, and you don’t need to spend entire hours without speaking a word, either.

All you need to do is walk three times around the trunk of the magic tree, silently, while you make a wish. It is a simple ceremony that can be performed on any day, but some prefer to do it on the anniversary of Havana’s founding, November 16, or in the final moments of the evening before.

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