Babalu Aye


Today, December 17th, is Babalu Aye day in the Afro-Cuban religion. Babalu Aye is the Orisha name for St. Lazarus, who is commonly referred to as the father of the world.

BabaluAye is the Orisha who governs epidemics and heals infectious diseases.
Though originally associated with smallpox, many of today’s worshippers appeal to BabaluAye for healing from HIV/AIDs. His colors are brown, black, and purple. His number is 17. His symbols are two dogs and crutches. He is portrayed dressed in burlap. He is offered white wine, popcorn, sesame seed candy, and a variety of grains, beans, and seeds.

Many Cubans hold a vigil starting the night of December 16th. They get together and light candles and make offerings to Babalu Aye and wait for him to arrive at midnight. Come midnight they ask for San Lazaro to watch over them and keep them and their families safe and healthy.

I am not an overtly religious person but one of the two items of jewelry I wear – the other being my wedding ring – is a gold medallion of the image above that my grandfather gave me before he passed away. And to be completely honest, sometimes I really do feel like someone’s watching over me and protecting me. Gracias, Primo.

The song made famous by Desi Arnaz – and the reason for this blog’s name – is actually a tribute to San Lazaro, Babalu Aye.

Gracias, Viejo.

26 thoughts on “Babalu Aye”

  1. Oye Val,

    I am still half asleep. Since I needed to get up at 4am for work this morning, I planned to go to sleep shortly after midnight once I lit my candles, etc. But, a house down the canal (you know the one) had a big party with music blasting until after 2am. I ended up sitting out back on the patio and listening to the music for a while. They jammed “Viejo Lazaro” by Dan Den right at midnight. I was dancing around the patio by myself with a cigar in one hand and some aguardiente in the other.

    I might have to throw my own bash next year. Hopefully the 16th will fall on a Friday.

    Ache Pa’ Ti


  2. I was awake last night till 12:00 midnight to light up my candles para el Viejo San Lazaro.
    My parents used to take me in Cuba to ” EL Rincon de San Lazaro) to take all the pennis that we collected thru the whole year. ( is a Cuban tradition). Years ago when I was 5 years old my grandmother was really ill and we made a promise to san Lazaro that if she will recover from her illness, we will go to ” el Rincon de Lazaro” every December 17, y gracias al Viejito she is alive up to this day. Gracias Val, por recordar al viejito San Lazaro.

  3. Yeah, I downloaded songs from Celina y Reutilio’s San Lazaro, Bola De Nieve’s Version of Babalu, “Viejo Lazaro” By Dan Den, Albita’s Version of San Lazaro, I also bought some Palo & Santeria CD’s from the local Botanica, which payed tribute to San Lazaro/Babalu-Aye/Cubayende.

    Once that was done, my father had set up that San Lazaro shrine complete with the beans, 10 candles, 4 on a white plate in the middle of it all, signafying my Father, mother, sister, and I.
    And a Purple & White cake infront of the shrine.

    I think it went well, no party, but it was good enough with my and my family around….Ah but Im forgetting today, maybe we will have a party afterall.

    And @12AM I gotta throw all those things away in a bag along with 17 pennies at the manigua, as goes the custom.

    Val, what did you do for the Beginning of El dia de San Lazaro?

  4. As a Roman Catholic Cuban this always struct me as paganism and worshipping other false gods. The notion of worshipping many dieties is kind of primitive. The commies in NYC are always “celebrating” the Africaness of Cuba – I have no problem with Africa in Cuba as a cultural thing but I do have a problem with trendy socialist Upper West Siders – thinking that we Cubans are a bunch of primitive Voodoo Goat sacrificing practitioners. I will stick with God, Jesus, Mary, Joesph, and the real saints. I don’t like a religion like Santeria where they kill chickens and goats and when they take La Caridad Del Cobre and co opt her for an African goddess. It’s just not kosher.

  5. Mmmmmkaay First of all, we are paying homage to San Lazaro, not talking about Santeria, Vodoo, Palo Mayombe..etc. I think of Orishas not as Gods but as Saints, I believe in any religion as long as there is a Supreme Being. If your not willing to speak about this remember “Keep Thy Religion To Thyself.”

    But its ok, thats your opinion…

  6. San Lazaro is not a santeria,Cada 17 de diciembre, en Cuba, los creyentes peregrinan desde los m?s dis?miles lugares de la Isla hasta el Santuario de San L?zaro en El Rinc?n, una modesta ermita cat?lica que se levanta justo a la entrada de un hospital para leprosos en las afueras de la capital, para celebrar su d?a, present?ndole ofrendas materiales, o cumplir la penitencia ofrecida a cambio del milagro de salvar a un familiar, curar heridas o simplemente mantener el bienestar de la familia, there is not dead chickens or goats.

  7. To be honest, and personally, I think it’s more of a cultural thing than a religious thing. For example, my parents dont usually do the vigil and such, but my Godmother does. And no one in my family kills chickens or goats or whatever. I have never met anyone that does.

    The Irish have thier St Patrick. There’s St Elmo, St Olaf, etc…

    Same thing, mas o menos, if you ask me.

  8. I think what val says makes some sense. A Cultural thing it is.

    But remember the biggest Santero of them all…



    He might be a commie but he uses SANTERIA and PALO to control the weak minded in Cuba.

    I have heard many accounts of this – especially the time when he came back from Africa all dressed in white.

  9. That is very true, but why everyone that believes in Santeria, Palo etc..Have to be labeled a Commie just because fidel, who is actually a totalitarian, which is worse, uses it?

    Whatever, I dont feel like fighting with you over your misguided interpretations about a religion of mine. I wish you nothing but luck and a healthy life.


  10. Whatever the case may be, Mandingo, you cant take away from the fact that San Lazaro, La Hermita de la Caridad, Santa Barbara, etal are all inherent to the Cuban culture, whether one believes in them or not.

  11. No fighting here – just talking it over with adults – everyone has a opinion and that is good. At least we have freedom of religion here and not like the poor Cubans. So lets calm down – including me and celebrate what makes us happy. I am sorry if I offended anyone.

    Festivus anyone?

  12. I am not cuban, but san lkazaro has done a lot for me and my family, therefore all year long we have a statue close to the dining room area, always surrounded with yellow and purple flowers, whisky and cigars, as well as a big container where we empty out our pockets of all our pennies, and on this day each year we go to “El rincon De San Lazaro” and donate them. I love you viejo..

  13. Right on Mandingo!

    I’m on page 87 of a book called, Waiting For Snow in Havana by Carlos Eire. A Pedro Pan kid who left Cuba after the rev, when he was 11.

    Somewhere around page 60 he mentioned how the people in Old Havana with the SL statues in their windows gave him the creeps. As I’m reading, I’m thinking, same here chico.

    The whole purpose of getting Elian back, aside from saving face, was for the issue of mystical superiority. The saintly boy, alone, surrounded by dolphins, found by the symbolic fishermen, magically surviving when everyone else perished. fc needed him by his side, and Elian is introduced as a rock star at major speeches. So much for not using Elian as a political prop.

    If I were the benevolent King of Cuba, I’d go around with a paintball gun filled with red paintballs searching for all white attire, PETA style. The majority of chivatos I’ve discovered in Cuba have been drapped in white for a year. It’s an obsessive freak show with all the backroom mantels of gifts. Look people, this false hope hasn’t changed your lot in life.

    Eire communicated an important point in his book. Cuba developed a stronger cultural alignment with the U.S.(birthday parties, TV, Christmas), and the cultural ties with Spain had diminished. Now we’re going back to Africa with a hermana form of Haitian voodoo? You call that progress and enlightenment?

    …”There was always something good happening. Simply being here in the United States, no matter how awful things were, was better than being there. I felt my soul was being sucked out of me in a system that wanted me to think a certain way and act a certain way. I’d gotten out, I’d escaped. It was great.” (In the book he says that Castro’s psychological power over young Cubans resembles “slicing off their heads ever so slowly, and replacing them with fearful, slavish copies of his own.”)…

    …Writing the memoir and opening himself to imagination, Eire says, has allowed him to “figure out the world” in a new way. His original title for the book used a metaphor that signifies to him the process of accommodating to life, with all its beauty and horror: kissing a lizard. Lizards — slithering across a ceiling, suddenly landing on a shoulder — horrified him when he was a boy in Cuba. Now he sees the lizard as an image of life. “Sometimes it seems, not necessarily evil, but certainly not good,” he says. “There’s a lot in life that you have to learn to love. Or else you’ll be miserable.”

  14. I’ll be in Havana in January, join me for pulpo and pescado broil there.

    I didn’t come from the school that said, just because it’s their culture—we cannot comment.

    If we want to extend that philosophy—let’s extend it to Africa and female genital mutilation. It’s part of the culture—right or wrong—we cannot comment.

    Just because something is steeped in history, custom, and tradition doesn’t make it off limits from comment. Anywhere.

  15. Justiz,

    I wasnt trying to stifle commentary. heck, thats why this blog is here. I just didnt want us arguing over something where neither side is going to give in on.

    Just becuase fidel and his minions use that african orisha thing to keep his people at bay, doent mena that someone who was brought up with that as part of thier religion is wrong.

    This is the US dude, anyone can practice any form of religion they want. heck, I had a guy comment on here once who worshipped Baal.

    cada loco con su tema. Know what I mean?

  16. Exactemente asere.

    Pero, just because another Cuban believes in his spirits, doesn’t mean we cannot josh with him the rest of the night, for attempting to spill a recently opened rifle of ron on the ground.

    The rum’s better in our stomachs, than on the patio.

    One of my favorite CD’s is called Hologram Of Baal.

    Do you think the pseudo-Rastas trolling for CUC’s on Calle Obispo really believe in Jah, or are just looking for lily-white tourists looking for that vibe?

    However, it doesn’t mean I cannot crack a laugh at ’em and their game, just because they’re Cuban.

    Tranquilo hombre.

  17. Geat post. Great responses. Justiz, I took an online class on “Waiting For Snow in Havana”, moderated by Carlos Eire. We exchanged many thoughts. Were you in that BNU course?

  18. Reply to Mandingo…

    (Sorry, I haven’t had the time to read every last post in this comment box).

    I can understand what you’re trying to say, as I am an orthodox Roman Catholic, BUT, please don’t overlook San Lazaro, to whom devotion is licit. He is the leper Christ spoke of in one of his parables.

    Growing up Cuban and Catholic is quite an experience. For the longest time, I couldn’t differentiate what practice was Catholic, and what was “Culturally Cuban Catholic.” I mean, how many of you have been swept over with leaves for a hex cleaning, or had an egg rolled all over your bodies? lol

    I admit to being at some Santa Barbara parties and feeling uncomfortable with some of the practices, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t share a devotion for Santa Barbara (only my devotion may only be in the form of requesting intercession now and again, and perhaps praying a litany of saints). I also try to remind myself that most people’s devotion to these saints stem from sincere piety and goodness.

    Sorry to ramble. ;^)

  19. I am an American interested in the history/legend or story of San Lazaro. And exactly what religion he is part of. I recently attended a service in Miami with a friend, on Dec 17th. I found it interesting and would like the details. Can anyone give me the full scoop on San Lazaro?

  20. Hank, I wasn’t in the course, but it would have been something right up my alley.

    I cannot implore how rich a book Waiting for Snow really is.

    Carlos mentioned the visits to his grandparent’s second floor flat on Calle Bruzon y Ayestaran in Cerro. Many of these one floor flats were subdivided into smaller apartments. Essentially, the creation of an apartment from a great room of the former house.

    He wrote how his brother tossed a match and burned a hole through the shirt of an old guy on the street. His dad finally gave the guy five pesos and settled the problem.

    I’ve always really liked balconies.

    Great book. Buy a copy for someone for Christmas. A great gift idea—buying somebody something they wouldn’t have known to buy for themselves.

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