HAVANA, Nov 20. El Templete keeps one of the oldest memories of Havana, precisely because the first mass and the first town council of the town were held in that location, on November 16, 1519.Under the foliage of a ceiba tree, one of the sacred trees of the Afro-Cuban religion, the event took place that marked the beginning of the former Villa de San Cristóbal in Havana until years later when the construction was ordered, first of a column, and after the small but imposing temple.
Construction of El Templete began in 1827, thanks to the initiative of the then captain general of the metropolis Francisco Dionisio Vives y Planes, Count of Cuba. Almost a century earlier, in 1754, and in memory of that first mass, Governor Francisco Cagigal de la Vega had ordered the construction of a three-sided column, with an image of the Virgin of Pilar at the top.
Its three sides represent the territorial division into three provinces of the colony and two texts were inscribed on it, one in Latin and the other in ancient Spanish. When the column was restored in 1903, the Latin inscription was replaced by another whose text is a version of the old one and was in charge of Dr. Juan M. Dihigo, professor of Latin at the University of Havana.
The suggestive text reads: “Stop your step, walker; A tree adorns this site, a leafy ceiba, rather I will say a memorable sign of the prudence and ancient religion of the young city (…).
The meeting of the prudent councilors was held for the first time more than two centuries ago: it was preserved by a perpetual tradition; However, he gave way to time. Take heed, then, that Havana’s faith may not perish in the future. You will see an image made today in the stone, that is, the last of November 1754.”
The small Greco-Roman temple located on Baratillo Street between O’Reilly and Enna, Plaza de Armas, was solemnly inaugurated on March 19, 1828. Inside it houses three canvases by the French painter, Juan Bautista Vermay, who was the director of the Academy of Saint Alexander.
The paintings illustrate the first mass and the first chapter of the Villa de San Cristóbal in Havana, to which a third by Vermay himself was added with a panoramic view of the official inauguration of the event.
The image shows a staging of the act of blessing the place and the mass of the Bishop of Espada, in the presence of the Captain General, the aristocracy and senior officials of the colonial government. The religious himself also defrayed the expenses for El Templete of a marble bust of Christopher Columbus of an unknown author with its pedestal.
The ceiba remains the most distinctive element of El Templete for Cubans. Beyond its historical burden, the tree maintains a mysticism that is remembered by many every November 15.
On the night of that day, the eve of the anniversary of the founding of Havana, it is tradition to circle the ceiba tree three times counterclockwise. Thus, each person makes a wish and some leave coins or other objects of a religious nature.
Legend says that spinning around the sacred tree in Yoruba tradition, touching it, hugging it, and even kissing it attracts prosperity. Even today this remains one of the most deeply rooted Havana traditions. Several studies have stated that this is due to the “marked syncretism imposed after the encounter between Spanish and African cultures.”
Although this is not the ceiba that lived through the events of the 16th century, since it has been replaced several times, Cubans maintain the ritual every year as one of the main tributes paid to the Cuban capital.
This 2023, the event was postponed to the night of November 16 itself due to the heavy rains that occurred in Havana that caused severe flooding in several areas of the city.
Thus, the words spoken by the eternal Historian of Havana, Eusebio Leal Spengler, seem to become increasingly more current when in one of the tributes to the city he stated: “Havana is now and will be, without a doubt, more beautiful. Come cyclones, winds, bans, and lockdowns, we will always be able to go out, break the wall and move forward.
That is the story of the tree and it is the story of us. It is like the tree of life, in its shadow we take refuge.”