The El Templete church was built next to a great Ceiba tree in 1928. It’s not clear when the tree was planted. The tree was highly revered by the natives who attributed it with magical-religious powers. People say that both the first religious ceremony and first town council meeting took place there. It’s a custom for Havana residents to circle it three times as they touch, hug and kiss it. At each turn they drop coins. Some represent wishes, others gratitude for dreams that came true.
Celia has a special connection to the Ceiba tree. Note, for example, that their names are the same except one letter. She frequently visits it with concerns and needing help. Her devotion to the tree is interesting given her aversion to santería. Santería, of course, is a religion that was deeply influenced by mystical African and indigenous beliefs and rituals. Herminia, who practices Santería, also visits the tree.
Another interesting point is that García frequently references the tree without going into the background of its significance, or the rituals surrounding it. Instead, the reader is left with scenes of the characters’ interaction with it.
Here are the instances where Celia and Herminia show their attachment to the tree:
“After her sleepless night in the house on Palmas Street, Celia wanders to the ceiba tree in the corner of the Plaza de las Armas. Fruit and coins are strewn by its trunk and the ground around the tree bulges with buried offerings. Celia knows that good charms and bad are hidden in the stirred earth near its sacred roots. Tía Alicia told her once that the ceiba is a saint, female and maternal. She asks the tree permission before crossing its shadow, then circles it three times and makes a wish for Felicia” (43).
Celia frequently stops by the ceiba tree in the Plaza de las Armas on her way home from Palmas Street. She places an orange and a few coins by its trunk, and says a short prayer for her daughter. Now and then she runs into Herminia Delgado carrying baskets filled with crusty roots and ratoons and fresh, healing spices for Felicia. Aniseed for hysteria. Sarsaparilla for the nerves and any remaining traces of syphilis. River fern and espartillo to ward off further evil. Herminia never mentions the ceiba tree, but Celia recognizes the distinct cluster of its leaves among her many herbs” (90).
“Tía Alicia took her to museums and the symphony and the ancient ceiba tree. Celia ran around it three times for every wish, until the tree repeated itself like a flashing deck of cards” (33).
Pilar, too, comes to love the Ceiba tree when she visits Cuba. This is just one example of her connection to Celia. Pilar thinks:
“There’s something about the vegetation, too, that I respond to instinctively—the stunning bougainvillea, the flamboyants and jacarandas, the orchids growing from the trunks of the mysterious ceiba trees” (235).